By Chris Buckley
BEIJING (Reuters) - China told the visiting Secretary of State James Steinberg that the two big powers should cooperate more in defusing tension over North Korea, playing down discord over how to rein in Pyongyang.
China's top diplomat, Dai Bingguo, urged closer coordination over the Korean peninsula during talks with Steinberg, the second most senior official in the U.S. State Department, the state-run Xinhua news agency reported on Friday.
Steinberg was in Beijing for three days up to Friday to press China to do more to bring to heel its neighbor, North Korea, which last month sparked alarm by shelling a South Korean island and disclosing advances in uranium enrichment, which could give it a new path to make nuclear weapons.
China has avoided publicly condemning its long-time ally over the deadly shelling and nuclear moves, and instead pleaded with other powers to embrace fresh talks with North Korea.
Dai made the case again to Steinberg on Thursday, but there are no signs the United States has shifted from its demand that North Korea first make real steps to end confrontation and restart nuclear disarmament.
"We need easing not tensions, dialogue and not confrontation," Dai told him, according to Xinhua and a statement on the Chinese Foreign Ministry website (www.mfa.gov.cn).
"China and the United States should enhance coordination and cooperation and promote renewed negotiations, including dialogue between North and South Korea," said Dai.
"The six-party talks are the only correct channel for settling problems on the peninsula and achieving enduring peace and stability in northeast Asia."
Beijing wants the six governments involved in stalled talks aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear ambitions -- China, the United States, Japan, Russia and both Koreas -- to meet and discuss how to ease tensions.
The U.S. embassy in Beijing said in a brief statement that Steinberg had "useful conversations" in Beijing about North Korea and he also discussed Chinese President Hu Jintao's state visit to the United States next month. It gave no more details.
The United States and its regional allies, Japan and South Korea, have all urged China to do more to rein in North Korea, which depends on China for economic and diplomatic backing.
China worries that more pressure on North Korea could unleash fresh tension on its border. U.S. officials have said China's hands-off approach merely encourages North Korea to pursue confrontation.
Washington, Seoul and Tokyo have been cool on Beijing's proposal for talks, worried they could be seen as allowing North Korea back into the diplomatic fold without making any real concessions.
In a sign of how far away fresh talks remain, Japan's Asahi newspaper reported that when China's Dai went to Pyongyang this month, North Korea said that removing U.N. sanctions was a precondition for its return to the six-party talks. The paper cited an unidentified source close to the talks.
Dai is a State Councilor who advises senior leaders on foreign policy. In the Chinese government hierarchy, he outranks the Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi.
Separately, Bill Richardson, the governor of the U.S. state of New Mexico and a former official in the Clinton administration, is on a private visit to North Korea, where he will meet officials and hopes to ease tension.
"I am not here as a representative of the Obama administration. But my objective is to see if we can reduce the tension on the Korean peninsula," Richardson said after arriving in Pyongyang on Thursday, according to Reuters TV.
(Additional reporting by Yoko Kubota in TOKYO and Reuters TV in PYONGYANG; Editing by Ken Wills)