China put rare public pressure on ally North Korea over the reclusive state's plan to launch a long-range rocket which is raising tension in the region and could scupper a recent aid deal with the United States.
The announcement of the launch immediately threw into doubt recent hopes that the new young head of the family dynasty ruling North Korea was ready open up more to the international community.
Experts said the planned launch is clearly a ballistic missile test, banned by U.N. resolutions, and would be in line with North Korea's long practised diplomacy of using threats to regional security to leverage concessions from the international community, and the United States in particular.
It would also be used to boost the stature of the North's new young leader Kim Jong-un, who took over the family dynasty after his father's death late last year.
Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun expressed China's worry when he met North Korean ambassador Ji Jae Ryong on Friday, the Xinhua news agency said.
We sincerely hope parties concerned stay calm and exercise restraint and avoid escalation of tension that may lead to a more complicated situation, Xinhua on Saturday quoted Zhang as saying.
Though he stopped well short of condemning the planned launch, Beijing only rarely goes public with pressure on the isolated North which relies heavily on its giant neighbour for its economic survival.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Friday called the announcement highly provocative, telling North Korea to honour its obligations including U.N. Security Council resolutions banning ballistic missiles.
Washington said a launch carrying a satellite could violate Pyongyang's agreement last month to stop nuclear tests, uranium enrichment and long-range missile launches - and thereby scuttle U.S. plans to resume food aid.
Those talks were in part brokered by China and had triggered expectations of a thaw in relations with North Korea under Kim Jong-un.
Their unravelling in less than a month is a major blow to any serious multilateral talks on denuclearising North Korea and analysts said it was unlikely Pyongyang would back down on the launch planned to coincide with celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the birth of its founder Kim Il-sung, the current leader's grandfather.
It certainly suggests that Pyongyang places greater emphasis on promoting the Kim Family Cult than on its external relations, Richard Bush, Director, Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution wrote after the North Korean announcement.
Japan said any such launch would violate a U.N. Security Council resolution. One Tokyo daily quoted sources on Saturday as saying that if the probability of a launch was deemed to be high, Japan would consider deploying PAC3 missile interceptors as is did during a 2009 rocket launch.
TOUGH LANGUAGE FROM MOSCOW
Russia, resorting to tough language, warned Pyongyang not to defy the international community. It stressed that the launch would undermine the chances for a revival of long-stalled six-nation talks on North Korea's nuclear programme. South Korea, Japan, Britain, France and others also expressed concern.
North Korea pledged that next month's launch would have no impact on neighbouring countries. Pyongyang has provided few details on the new satellite, but has said it will be a working satellite developed using indigenous technology.
The launch will take place between April 12-16, around the time South Korea holds a parliamentary election, and just over three weeks after a global nuclear security summit in Seoul.
In April 2009, North Korea conducted a similar ballistic rocket launch that resulted in a new round of toughened U.N. sanctions, squeezing the secretive state's already troubled economy and deepening its isolation.
That launch, dismissed as a failure after the first stage fell into the Sea of Japan without placing a satellite in orbit, provoked outrage in Tokyo. Another test failed in similar circumstances in 1998.
(Additional reporting by David Chance in Seoul, Linda Sieg in Tokyo and Steve Gutterman in Moscow; Editing by Ron Popeski and Jonathan Thatcher)