- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 16, 2003

SEOUL, South Korea, April 16 (UPI) — South Korean officials Wednesday confirmed that the United States and North Korea would hold trilateral meetings with Chinese officials in Beijing, but some were miffed that Seoul had been excluded.

Japan also expressed concern about being left off the invitation list, though Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi assured reporters in Tokyo late Wednesday his administration was in touch with all the parties.

Japan and South Korea are the United States' key allies in East Asia. China has long supported North Korea — its troops prevented what was about to be a victory for the West in the Korean War — but its relations with the United States have recently shown signs of a thaw. China as active participant and not just host for the talks would be a reassuring presence for the North Koreans but also a crucial partner for the United States in resolving the nuclear standoff.

Representatives of the three countries are expected to meet in Beijing next week. The U.S. envoy will likely be James Kelly of the State Department, the official who confronted Pyongyang last October with evidence North Korea was pursuing a uranium-enrichment program.

In Seoul, Foreign Minister Yoon Young-kwan said South Korea would not attend the talks "because of North Korea's rejection." Pyongyang refused Seoul's role, saying the nuclear row was "a product of the U.S. hostile policy" toward the world's only Stalinist state and thus it was the United States with whom they wanted to negotiate.

Although South Korea will not be immediately involved, Yoon said his government decided to support the trilateral meeting "because it is important to begin talks at an early date." But the three-way talks will eventually be expanded to include South Korea and possibly Japan and Russia, Yoon asserted: "The United States promised to begin discussions on substantial measures only after Seoul's participation," he told reporters.

Ra Jong-yil, South Korea's national security adviser, called the talks a "preparatory step" for the full-fledged multilateral meeting.

"What is important is not the format, but the substance," Ra said to journalists.

"The important thing is to help both the North and the U.S. save face," he said. The United States had refused to meet one-on-one with North Korea as adamantly as North Korea insisted on it. Holding the talks in China but without Japan and South Korea appears to be a compromise by both. South Korea had earlier preferred a six-party meeting among the two Koreas, the United States, Russia, China and Japan.

President Roh Moo-hyun welcomed the agreement on dialogue, assuring a group of visiting U.S. congressmen that "North Korea will abandon nuclear programs and take the road of reform and openness, if economic aid and its political system are guaranteed. … I don't think it will take risks especially if the safety of its system is guaranteed."

In Japan, Koizumi told reporters he and U.S. President George W. Bush spoke by telephone for about 15 minutes Wednesday. NHK, the semi-official Nihon Hoso Kyokai, or Japanese Broadcasting Association, reported Koizumi as saying he requested that Japan and South Korea be allowed to join the talks. Bush reportedly deferred in answering the request directly, saying only that he deemed the alliance of the United States, Japan and South Korea vital in the talks.

Some commentators in Tokyo expressed anxiety that in the intensity of resolving the nuclear crisis, Japan's issue with settling the fate of Japanese abductees and their families would be overlooked. Japan has made a thorough disclosure and release of abductees' children — born in North Korea after their parents were abducted, but considered Japanese nationals nonetheless under Japanese law — a requirement before resuming full diplomatic relations with North Korea. After years of denials, Pyongyang admitted to kidnapping about a dozen Japanese as translators and teachers in its spy schools, and even allowed several to return to Japan for a visit. Any children were not allowed to accompany them, however.

By coincidence, four family members of abductees left Japan Wednesday for Los Angeles to promote their cause in the United States. Others visited Washington in February.

Paik Hak-soon, a North Korea analyst at Seoul's private think tank Sejong Institute, also considered the allies' exclusion "disappointing," particularly that of South Korea.

"Seoul's exclusion of the talks runs counter to the government's much-touted principle of taking a leading role in resolving the North Korean nuclear issue," he said. "The South may only play a secondary role when it joins later."

Some lawmakers expressed disappointment, too.

"The nuclear issue directly affects the security of the South," said Chu Mi-ae, a ruling lawmaker. "That is why Seoul should take part in dialogue from the beginning."

Kim Tae-hyun, a Chung-Ang University professor, said next week's talks were a major step toward ending the six-month nuclear standoff.

"But more important is the start of dialogue. South Korea can play a role in the full-fledged talks."

On Wednesday, North Korea said it was ready to sit down for talks, reiterating it would accept any form of dialogue and called for the United States take an "honest approach" in resolving the nuclear crisis.

"It is possible to settle the nuclear issue on the Korean peninsula if the U.S. sincerely gives up its hostile will and honestly approaches dialogue," said Minju Joson, the government newspaper.

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(With reporting by Hiroshi Yamasaki in Tokyo.)

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