The Bush administration, under fire for policies that have failed to stop North Korea from advancing its nuclear-weapons arsenal, ruled...

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WASHINGTON — The Bush administration, under fire for policies that have failed to stop North Korea from advancing its nuclear-weapons arsenal, ruled out direct talks with the North after its apparent nuclear test.

Instead, the United States and other world powers on Tuesday began discussing U.N. sanctions on North Korea that would authorize inspection of cargo going to or coming from the country to halt weapons-related transfers.

In a significant development, China, North Korea’s principal ally, said for the first time that it would agree to sanctions on the government of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

“I think there has to be some punitive actions,” said Wang Guangya, China’s ambassador to the United Nations. “We need to have a firm, constructive, appropriate-but-prudent response to North Korea’s nuclear threat,” he said, without being more specific.

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The response carries uniquely high stakes for China, North Korea’s political and practical lifeline. China supplies an estimated 80 percent of the goods on sale in the North, and 300,000 to 1 million tons of much-needed oil each year, according to a study by the International Crisis Group.

China’s agreement to sanctions on the North would be a major victory for the United States and Japan to punish Kim’s government for its nuclear ambitions.

China, which has led diplomatic efforts to engage the North, was deeply embarrassed by North Korea’s apparent nuclear test Monday.

But China is wary of destabilizing North Korea because a collapse of the government could flood China with millions of refugees. It’s unclear how far it will go in curtailing crucial food and energy supplies or other trade.

“I think they’re going to do some sanctions that will sting, but not ultimately paralyze North Korea. The only thing they [the Chinese] worry more about than a nuclear weapon is the collapse of North Korea,” said Kurt Campbell, a former top Pentagon official on Asia policy now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a national-security research center.

Officials from the United States and other Western governments privately echoed that analysis.

North Korea’s claimed nuclear test — U.S. intelligence agencies still hadn’t confirmed it Tuesday — has brought wide condemnation and given new impetus to the U.S. drive for further sanctions.

But the White House found itself on the defensive Tuesday against critics who said President Bush’s policy of refusing to engage North Korea in direct, one-on-one talks had backfired.

Bush said in May 2003 that the United States wouldn’t tolerate a nuclear-armed North Korea. Since then, the North is thought to have expanded its stockpile of nuclear weapons, has broken a self-imposed moratorium on test-firing ballistic missiles and Monday said it had conducted its first underground nuclear-weapons test.

Campbell, who served during the Clinton administration, gave the Bush administration high marks for its response to the crisis this week. But he said the administration should have tried a different approach earlier.

“The biggest problem has been a reluctance to engage [North Korea] diplomatically,” he said. The administration, he said, seems to “worry that by talking to them at a very high level, that we are somehow blessing … a reprehensible regime.”

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other Bush aides ruled out direct talks, saying the Clinton administration had tried it and failed.

“The United States tried direct dialogue with the North Koreans in the ’90s. And that resulted in the North Koreans signing on to agreements that they then didn’t keep,” Rice said in an interview on CNN.

She referred to a 1994 deal known as the Agreed Framework, under which North Korea’s known nuclear program, involving plutonium, was frozen. The United States said the North cheated on the deal by pursuing a second, covert program based on uranium enrichment.

Rice said the United States is now in a stronger position to deal with North Korea because Japan, South Korea and, especially, China are prepared to take united action against the country.

Many State Department experts argue that a tough approach plays into Kim’s hands and further isolation is unlikely to matter to the world’s most isolated country.

The U.S.-proposed sanctions would bar imports and exports of arms, nuclear- and missile-related material and luxury goods to North Korea and would authorize inspections of inbound and outbound cargo by third countries.

Japan, which has historical enmity with North Korea, has proposed even tougher measures, including broad trade sanctions, refusing to allow North Korean ships and planes to enter other countries and banning travel by top North Korean government officials.

China is unlikely to go that far. China and North Korea have had close relations as communist neighbors, and Kim has visited China to learn about its economic policies.

Republican Sen. John McCain, meanwhile, accused former President Clinton, the husband of McCain’s potential 2008 White House rival, of failing to act in the 1990s to stop North Korea from developing nuclear weapons.

“I would remind Senator [Hillary] Clinton and other Democrats critical of the Bush administration’s policies that the framework agreement her husband’s administration negotiated was a failure,” McCain said at a news conference.

“The Koreans received millions and millions in energy assistance. They’ve diverted millions of dollars of food assistance to their military,” he said.

Sen. Clinton’s spokesman dismissed McCain’s criticism and said it was time for a new North Korea policy from Bush.

Material from the Chicago Tribune and The Associated Press is included in this report.