- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 11, 2006

SEOUL — Breaking with the hard line favored by the United States and Japan, South Korea yesterday convened Cabinet-level talks with North Korea and denounced Tokyo for raising the prospect of pre-emptive strikes on the North.

The senior U.S. nuclear negotiator, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, was in Beijing, where President Hu Jintao pressed North Korea in unusually strong terms to return to six-party talks on its nuclear program. A Japan-sponsored U.N. Security Council resolution to sanction Pyongyang for a wave of ballistic-missile launches has been put on hold pending a Chinese diplomatic initiative.

A senior North Korean delegation arrived in the southern city of Pusan for a dinner banquet ahead of three days of talks beginning today.

Eighteen previous rounds of talks have focused on humanitarian issues, but South Korean Unification Minister Lee Jong-seok has insisted on dealing this time with a volley of missiles fired earlier this month by North Korea into waters between Korea and Japan.

He said Seoul will not discuss further humanitarian aid to the North until there is an “exit” from the crisis.

At the same time, South Korean officials were sharply critical of Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, who suggested a day earlier that Tokyo examine the constitutionality of pre-emptive strikes against North Korea’s missile sites.

Presidential spokesman Jung Tae-ho accused Tokyo of using the missile firings as “a pretext for becoming a military power,” according to the Yonhap news agency. Such statements were “dangerous and reckless,” he said.

A day earlier, a presidential spokesman said there was “no reason to fuss over [the North Korean missile tests] like Japan, but every reason to do the opposite.” China similarly dismissed the Japanese demand for sanctions as an “overreaction.”

In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack urged Japan and South Korea to “bridge” their differences but played down the spat, noting that both countries shared the goal of disarming the North.

In Beijing yesterday, Mr. Hu said he was “seriously concerned” about Pyongyang’s missile launches and called on a visiting North Korean delegation to work for a resumption of six-party talks.

“We are against any actions that will aggravate the situation,” he told Yang Hyong-sop, the vice president of the North’s parliament, according to the Xinhua news agency. “We hope that relevant parties will do more things conducive to the peace and stability of the peninsula.”

China also has a delegation in Pyongyang, and Mr. Hill said Washington was counting on Beijing to take the lead in lobbying the North to stop its missile launches and return to talks, according to the Associated Press.

“Obviously, we’re in a rather crucial period,” Mr. Hill said at Beijing’s airport. “The Chinese government has an important diplomatic mission going on and so we want to be in close consultation.”

Seoul has in recent years found itself increasingly at odds with Tokyo and Washington as it tries to draw its northern neighbor out of its isolation with trade and diplomatic contacts.

“Many experts worry that the missile launch can divide Korea and the United States, and Korea and Japan,” said Kim Tae-woo, a North Korean expert at the Korea Institute for Defense Analysis.

South Korea’s center-left government also is sensitive to the feelings of the nation’s left-wing youth movement, which is increasingly sympathetic to Pyongyang.

“North Korea’s missiles are the last fortress of peace to deter a U.S. invasion,” said a recent Internet posting by the left-wing Citizens Movement for the Withdrawal of U.S. Forces in Korea.

As for Japan, few Koreans have forgiven Tokyo for its often-brutal colonial rule over the peninsula from 1910 to 1945, and flare-ups are common over a disputed island and visits by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to a World War II memorial.

Nicholas Kralev in Washington contributed to this article.

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