Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi approach to shake hands after their news conference in Beijing. (Pool photo by Jacquelyn Martin/via Reuters)

Secretary of State John F. Kerry and China’s foreign minister agreed Wednesday to move ahead with a U.N. resolution condemning North Korea for its latest nuclear test, but they appeared as far apart as ever on how far to push Pyongyang.

The United States says any additional U.N. action against the North is likely to include expanded sanctions. Beijing, a key ally of North Korea’s, expressed anger at the nuclear test this month but has not indicated whether it will endorse further pressure.

As a permanent U.N. Security Council member, China could use its veto power to block any measures.

After a five-hour meeting between Kerry and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, the two diplomats appeared before reporters with tension written across their faces. Wang drummed his fingers on the side of his lectern as a grim-faced Kerry excoriated the actions of North Korea and its erratic leader, Kim Jong Un.

Kerry used unusually forceful language about the dangers posed by Pyongyang. Wang repeatedly mentioned the need for stability on the Korean Peninsula. While both agreed that more sanctions are warranted, they said the details would have to be resolved in talks at the U.N. Security Council in coming days.

“Kim Jong Un’s actions are reckless, and they are dangerous,” Kerry said of the leader whose regime has been backed by China for six decades. “Whether or not he achieved the explosion of a hydrogen weapon is not what makes the difference. It’s that he is trying.”

Six-party talks, also involving South Korea, Russia and Japan, began in 2003 but failed to make headway. North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in 2006 and finally quit the talks in 2009. It has since conducted three tests, the most recent on Jan. 6.

China has voted in the U.N. Security Council to sanction North Korea over its previous nuclear tests, and it has condemned the latest one. But Wang made clear that China is prepared to go only so far.

“Sanctions are not an end in themselves,” he said. “Our goal should be to bring the nuclear issue on the Korea Peninsula back to the negotiating track.”

Kerry declined to be specific about what sectors might be affected by sanctions. But he suggested they might include trade involving the flow of goods and services between North Korea and China, shipping and aviation, as well as resource exchanges involving coal and other fuel.

“There are many different ways, we think, in which non-
punitive to the people of North Korea but nevertheless effective steps can be taken,” he said.

Kerry came to Beijing as part of an effort by U.S. officials to persuade the Chinese government to press Pyongyang to give up its nuclear program. He said China has a “special role” to play because it serves as the North’s lifeline, providing food, fuel and a conduit for most of its trade and financial transactions.

In Beijing, analysts and state media argued that pushing North Korea further could make it more aggressive or hasten the regime’s collapse, propelling a stream of refugees into China and potentially installing a U.S. client state on its border. Washington is exacerbating the situation, they said.

But Kerry made clear that the strategy of relying on Beijing to prod Pyongyang needs to change. He said North Korea’s stated intention of acquiring intercontinental ballistic missiles threatens the United States, which he said will never accept North Korea as a nuclear-armed state.

“The United States will take all necessary steps to defend the American people and to honor our security commitments to allies in the region,” he said. “I say that, making clear we do not want to raise military tensions, we are not seeking additional steps other than U.N. Security Council resolutions, but we will not walk away from any actions necessary to achieve the goal.”

Kerry also held out a carrot to North Korea, saying it would get sanctions relief, economic help, energy and food aid plus direct humanitarian assistance if it ends its nuclear program.

Yet even as he stood alongside Wang after their lengthy meeting, which extended into lunch, Kerry seemed to be pleading with China to do more to rein in its neighbor, noting that China was one of five countries that negotiated an agreement to trim Iran’s nuclear program.

Nuclear-related sanctions against Iran were lifted this month, once Iran pared down its uranium stockpiles and disabled or mothballed parts of its nuclear facilities.

“With all due respect, more significant and impactful sanctions were put in place against Iran, which did not have a nuclear weapon, than against North Korea, which does,” he said.

In contrast, Wang’s words were laced with reluctance.

“Our position will not be swayed by specific events or the temporary mood of the moment,” he said.

Wang said China is committed to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, but he said two other principles are equally important: “The commitment to uphold peace and stability. The commitment to resolve the issue through dialogue and consultation.”

In the past, Washington has used less confrontational language than Kerry employed Wednesday, hoping China would use its clout to pressure North Korea on its own. But in recent weeks, U.S. officials have shown signs that their patience is wearing thin.

Yanmei Xie, senior China analyst with the International Crisis Group in Beijing, said U.S. officials may have recognized the limits of their softer approach.

“Now they appear to be trying a different approach, raising the stakes for China of what the U.S. sees as inaction over North Korea.” she said. “I think the U.S. is not pretending anymore.”

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