South Korea, China Pledge to Try Diplomacy With North

Times Staff Writer

North Korea's closest neighbors, South Korea and China, pledged Thursday to cooperate in seeking a diplomatic solution to end the standoff over the secretive regime's resumption of its nuclear program.

China's Foreign Ministry did not disclose the details of the talks, saying only that Vice Foreign Minister Wang Yi and South Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Lee Tae Shik had "exchanged opinions" on the North Korean nuclear issue.

South Korea's Yonhap news agency quoted Shin Jung Seung of the South Korean Foreign Ministry as saying, "The two sides hold the common view that the problem should be resolved peacefully through dialogue and agreed to work together to prevent a further escalation of the situation."

Beijing is North Korea's biggest source of food and fuel aid, and Seoul remains committed to South Korean President Kim Dae Jung's "sunshine policy" of engagement with the North. The two countries share a common disapproval of the Bush administration's diplomatic efforts to isolate and pressure North Korea.

Beijing has tried to keep its warming ties with Seoul discreet so as not to antagonize Pyongyang, its former Cold War ally. That effort was jeopardized last year by a wave of North Korean refugees who barged into foreign diplomatic missions in China hoping for asylum in South Korea. China has allowed the refugees to proceed to South Korea, but mostly through third countries.

Beijing and Seoul were alarmed last month by North Korea's decision to restart its plutonium-fueled nuclear reactor at its Yongbyon complex, a facility that experts say could produce material for nuclear weapons. Pyongyang froze the plant in 1994 as part of an agreement with the United States.

In recent days, North Korea has broken seals, dismantled video cameras and expelled U.N. inspectors -- one of them Chinese -- at the facility.

It has also threatened to withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which it joined in 1985.

Lee's two-day visit to Beijing is part of Seoul's "total mobilization of diplomatic resources," as South Korean Foreign Minister Choi Sung Hong put it in a New Year's speech, to work with regional powers to dissuade Pyongyang from restarting its nuclear program.

"The North Korean nuclear issue, which threatens peace and stability on the Korean peninsula and northeast Asia, is our priority diplomatic task," Choi said.

Today, Seoul will send Vice Foreign Minister Kim Hang Kyung to Moscow to consult with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Losyukov.

Like China, Russia maintains cordial relations with Pyongyang but has also warned the Communist regime to fulfill its obligations under international treaties.

The two Koreas are scheduled to hold Cabinet-level talks in mid-January, in the highest-level contact the two sides have had since the current standoff began to unfold in October.

North Korean state media continued to accuse Washington on Thursday of seeking to topple the Pyongyang regime.

"The U.S. seeks to escalate military pressure and offensive against the DPRK [North Korea] on the charge of posing a nuclear and missile threat and, furthermore, bring it to its knees by force," the official Minju Joson newspaper said.

Capitalizing on anti-American sentiment in South Korea, Pyongyang had urged Seoul on Wednesday to join it in opposing U.S. pressure tactics.

But South Korean Unification Minister Jeong Se Hyun rebuffed the overture Thursday and insisted that Pyongyang drop its belligerent rhetoric and "not attempt to test the limit of the international community."

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