Asian leaders push to restart six-party talks

At a summit in Beijing, the leaders of South Korea, Japan, and China promised to push for a rapid resumption of six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear programme. China says Pyongyang is eager to ease tensions with its neighbours.


REUTERS - North Korea wants to ease a standoff with the United States, Japan and South Korea, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao told East Asian neighbours at a summit focused on Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and regional integration. 

At the meeting on Saturday, China, Japan and South Korea vowed to seek an early restart of six-party talks aimed at ending North Korea’s nuclear weapons plans, and to push a long-term idea to create an “East Asian community”, promoted by Japan’s new prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama. 

Wen visited North Korea last Sunday to Tuesday and met top leader Kim Jong-il. Wen said Pyongyang wanted to ease strains, following sanctions and months of contention sparked by its second-ever nuclear test in May. 

“North Korea does not only hope to improve relations with the United States, it also hopes to do so with South Korea and Japan,” Wen told a news conference after the meeting in Beijing with Hatoyama and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak.

Wen said the chance to revive the six-party nuclear disarmament talks including Pyongyang would not last. 

“If we miss this opportunity, then we may have to make even more efforts further down the road,” he said. 

The three East Asian leaders also vowed to work for closer regional economic integration, lowering trade barriers and aiming eventually for a bloc something like the European Union. 

“The three countries remain committed to the development of an East Asian community based on the principles of openness, transparency and inclusiveness as a long term goal,” said a joint statement the leaders issued at the meeting’s end. 

The vows to cooperate on North Korea and economic development are unlikely to make any immediate difference. But they underscored the growing pull for the three Asian powers to set aside friction as they struggle to surmount the economic slump. 

The combined GDP of Japan, China and South Korea accounts for 16 percent of the world’s total output, with Japan and China respectively the world’s second- and third-biggest economies.

The joint show of unity may also increase pressure on North Korea to restart nuclear negotiations. But analysts said even if disarmament talks restart, wary North Korea will not be in the mood to make swift concessions. 

In April, North Korea said the six-party talks between the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States were defunct. It walked away from the talks last December. 

“Kim Jong-il felt that given Chinese concessions and aid, he couldn’t completely negate China’s efforts to restart the six-party talks,” Cai Jian, an expert on North Korea at Fudan University in Shanghai, told Reuters. 

“But clearly he doesn’t want to return to the talks as they were ... North Korea felt that the talks, especially in the later phase, were a way to gang up on it.” 

Heavily hedged 

This week, North Korea’s top leader Kim Jong-il offered visiting Premier Wen a heavily hedged statement that Pyongyang could return to multilateral negotiations, possibly the six-party talks, provided it first saw satisfactory progress in two-way talks with the United States. 

“We support the United States and North Korea holding conscientious and constructive dialogue,” Wen said on Saturday.  “We also support enhanced contacts between North Korea and both Japan and South Korea.” 

Washington has said it is open to talks with the North as long as that leads to a resumption of the six-party negotiations. 

A senior North Korean nuclear envoy, Ri Gun, plans to visit the United States this month, opening the way to possible two-way talks, a South Korean broadcaster said on Friday. 

After Wen spoke, South Korean President Lee and Japan’s Hatoyama also said they were open to engaging North Korea, but both sounded a cautious note and stressed any two-way talks had to be just a warm-up for the six-party negotiations. 

Lee’s office said the three countries at the summit also agreed to seek a “grand bargain” with North Korea, offering incentives in return for steps to end its nuclear arms programme. 

Wen “expressed an intention to actively cooperate on the grand bargain,” Lee’s spokesman Kim Eun-hye said, according to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency. 

But China has not publicly endorsed the idea, and North Korean media have said Lee’s idea was “ridiculous”.

The East Asian leaders also stressed hopes for deeper mutual economic cooperation. They will oppose trade protectionism, and seek progress in the Doha round of trade talks, they said.

South Korea’s Lee proposed a permanent office to seek better cooperation among the three, an idea Hatoyama endorsed.  Hatoyama also urged faster steps to a regional free trade agreement.

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