BEIJING, Tuesday 23 November 2010 (AFP) - China said Tuesday it was "imperative" six-nation talks to end North Korea's atomic ambitions be restarted, amid alarm over Pyongyang's latest nuclear claims and artillery fired at South Korea.
"What's imperative now is to restart six-party talks as soon as possible," foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters when asked to comment on North Korea's claims it has an operational uranium enrichment programme.
He spoke as a US special envoy headed to China to seek its help in curbing North Korea's new nuclear project, and shortly after North Korea fired dozens of artillery shells onto a South Korean island, killing at least one soldier.
The shelling triggered an exchange of fire and the South's armed forces went on their highest state of alert.
"It is China's consistent and firm position to realise de-nuclearisation on the (Korean) peninsula through dialogue and consultation," Hong said.
"We hope parties make joint efforts to create conditions for the resumption of six-party talks," he added, repeating a call China makes routinely in the effort to dismantle North Korea's nuclear programme.
The North recently disclosed to visiting US experts an apparently operational uranium enrichment programme -- a second potential way of building a nuclear bomb.
The North shut down its ageing gas graphite reactor in 2008 under a six-nation deal, after stockpiling enough weapons-grade plutonium for possibly six to eight small bombs.
The long-running six-nation negotiation process hosted by Beijing also includes the United States, the two Koreas, Russia, and Japan.
North Korea abandoned the forum in April 2009, a month before its second nuclear test, and announced in September last year it had reached the final stage of enriching uranium.
The North, showing off its centrifuges to US experts this month, said the operation would fuel a civilian electricity-generating project.
But scientists said they could be configured to create weapons-grade uranium, and top US defence officials said that is the real intention.