The United States warned China that it would redeploy forces in Asia if it failed to rein in its ally North Korea, the New York Times reported on Friday, as Pyongyang bowed to Seoul's demands for crisis talks.
The paper quoted a senior administration official as saying U.S. President Barack Obama's warning had persuaded China -- the North's main diplomatic and economic backer -- to take a harder line towards Pyongyang, and opened the door to a resumption of inter-Korean talks, possibly next month.
North Korea on Thursday accepted the South's conditions for talks, marking a major breakthrough in the crisis on the peninsula. Such dialogue could clear the way for the resumption of aid-for-disarmament, or six-party, talks.
The New York Times said Obama warned his Chinese counterpart that if Beijing did not step up pressure on North Korea, Washington would redeploy its forces in Asia to protect itself from a potential North Korean strike on U.S. soil.
Obama first made the warning in a phone call to Hu last month, and repeated it over a private dinner at the White House on Tuesday, the U.S. administration official said.
The White House refused comment on the report.
Last week, U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates warned that Pyongyang was becoming a direct threat to the United States and could develop inter-continental ballistic missiles within five years.
Wang Dong of Peking University's School of International Studies said Washington's reported warning to Beijing was a slap in the face for the Chinese leader, who has urged the two Koreas to resolve their differences through dialogue.
Playing tough like this, it might just backfire, I'm afraid, Wang said. If this article represents the real thinking by American leaders, the danger of war on the peninsula can never be dismissed.
China has its own strategy in trying to influence North Korea. It wants to find the least costly path to solve this crisis.
The proposed talks will be the first contact between the two Koreas since a deadly artillery attack on the South in November sharply raised tensions on the divided peninsula.
Pyongyang on Thursday bowed to Seoul's demands that talks specifically address that attack and the sinking of a South Korean warship last March, but made no mention of talks on denuclearisation -- the key component of six-party meetings.
Washington and Tokyo have cautiously welcomed the Korean talks, but there has been no comment from Beijing.
Analysts cautioned against reading too much into the talks, saying while they marked progress, the South's demands for an apology for last year's attacks could prove difficult for Pyongyang to accept.
There must be a paradigm shift from both North and South Korea for the sake of stability in the region, said Ahn Yinhay of Korea University. Given the favourable relationship between China and the United States, now is the right time.
Washington and Beijing have argued that North-South dialogue is a prerequisite to a resumption of six-party talks involving the two Koreas, the United States, China, Japan and Russia.
In 2009, Pyongyang walked out of the six-party talks, under which it previously agreed to abandon its nuclear programs, pronouncing them dead.
Obama and Hu have jointly expressed concern about North Korea's expanding nuclear programme.
The South's unification ministry said it was formulating a proposal for separate nuclear talks with the North.
I think there will be opportunities to discuss the specific measures aimed towards denuclearisation, the South's envoy for six-party talks, Wi Sung-lac, told YTN radio.
We need to confirm that North Korea is sincere about denuclearisation, and talks are needed for this reason. Through such talks we will need to see whether the six-party talks could be productive.
The prospect of a resumption of six-party talks will set off a new wave of diplomacy, starting with a visit to the region by U.S. Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg next week.
Six-party talks have been beset by problems since their start in 2003, with the North sporadically walking out, but experts say they are the best multilateral forum to engage Pyongyang.
Moreover, they say six-party talks keep a lid on tensions.
The South's defence ministry said it would propose a date for the preliminary talks sometime next week, adding they would likely take place in mid-February.
The talks will set the agenda for high-level military talks, possibly at the ministerial level.
The North's KCNA state news agency on Friday published the letter sent to the South's defence ministry. We are in a firm position to resolve all military issues including those the South wants to propose, it said.
Seoul has questioned the North's sincerity for talks, saying it mirrors past behaviour when it has sought dialogue to extract concessions for aid only to row back on their promises later.