The United States is pushing hard for tough sanctions against North Korea, one of its top envoys for Asia said on Wednesday, although diplomats at the United Nations said it appeared unlikely that the North's ally, China, would support them.
Washington, along with South Korea, Japan and European Union states, want to punish North Korea for its December rocket launch with a United Nations Security Council resolution and tougher sanctions against Pyongyang.
"We anticipate formal steps in the Security Council in the immediate future," Kurt Campbell, the top U.S. diplomat for East Asian Affairs, told reporters after meeting with South Korean defense and foreign ministry officials.
Campbell said Washington was "in the midst of really rather intense deliberations" in the Security Council. He did not directly address the issue of China's involvement and is set to travel to Japan after South Korea.
Bejing is the North's only major diplomatic ally. While it agreed to sanctions in the wake of North Korea's 2006 and 2009 nuclear tests, diplomats at the United Nations say China only wants a presidential statement to condemn the latest launch but would allow more names to be added to a UN blacklist.
North Korea is already banned under United Nations Security Council resolutions from developing nuclear and missile technology but has been working steadily on its nuclear test site, possibly in preparation for a third nuclear test, satellite images show.
December's successful long-range rocket launch, the first to put a satellite in orbit, was a coup for North Korea's young leader Kim Jong-un.
It raised tensions in East Asia at the same time as Japan and South Korea elected new leaders, who Washington want to mend relations after a dispute over an island claimed by both countries boiled over.
The island dispute caused Tokyo and Seoul to cancel intelligence-sharing plans. They also allowed to lapse a $57 billion currency swap agreement aimed at insulating two of Asia's largest economies from the global financial crisis.
Campbell is due to meet South Korean President-elect Park Geun-hye later on Wednesday.
Washington hopes South Korea and Japan can put a lid on spats over history and territory stemming from Japan's 1910-45 occupation of Korea.
U.S. officials are also seeking to reassure Tokyo as it confronts almost daily challenges from China over the sovereignty of other disputed islets in a separate, more dangerous, territorial row.
"We have very great confidence in the leadership in both Japan and South Korea to recognize the strongest, best interests of both countries to maintain that positive trajectory going forward," Campbell said.
(Additional reporting by Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations; Editing by Paul Tait)