- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 11, 2009

BEIJING | North Korea appears willing to improve ties with the U.S. and its neighbors in Asia and perhaps rejoin nuclear disarmament talks, China’s prime minister said Saturday, urging fellow leaders not to let the opportunity slip away.

“We need to seize the opportunity and make the most of it,” Prime Minister Wen Jiabao told a news conference after a meeting with leaders from Japan and South Korea. “If we miss this opportunity, we might later have to do more than we should.”

These were Mr. Wen’s first public comments on a visit last week to Pyongyang, where he said he met for 10 hours with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. China is reclusive North Korea’s chief ally and source of economic aid.

His upbeat remarks are the latest indication that the North is shifting tack after earlier this year pulling out of six-nation disarmament talks and conducting nuclear and missile tests. But the North says it first wants direct talks with the United States before re-entering the multilateral negotiations.

The North’s nuclear program was a key topic as Mr. Wen, Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak met in Beijing for an annual summit Saturday. The East Asian nations agreed to work together on the nuclear issue and jointly tackle other challenges, such as climate change and expanding trade and investment ties, as they move toward closer regional integration.

Mr. Wen said his deepest impression after his talks with Mr. Kim was that the North wants to improve relations with the United States as well as Japan and South Korea.

Mr. Kim told Mr. Wen that the North might return to six-nation nuclear talks - which also include China, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the United States - depending on its hoped-for negotiations with Washington.

“The North Korean side showed flexibility. It said it is not opposed to the six-party talks, and it is willing to resolve the relevant issues through bilateral and multilateral talks,” Mr. Wen said.

North Korea has long sought a direct dialogue with the U.S., while American officials have said such talks may be possible if they are part of the six-party negotiations.

A decision is still pending on whether to let North Korea’s deputy nuclear envoy, Ri Gun, attend a private security forum in the U.S. later this month, State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley said Friday.

News of the planned trip has raised speculation that Mr. Ri might meet with U.S. officials to lay the groundwork for possible direct talks with Washington.

Despite the show of unity in Beijing, the North’s three neighbors have long had differing approaches in dealing with Pyongyang. As host of the nuclear talks and a longtime supplier of fuel and food to the impoverished North, China is viewed as having greater influence there.

After their three-way talks, Mr. Wen did not respond directly to an agreement Friday by the Japanese and South Korean leaders that the North should not be given aid until it begins to dismantle its nuclear weapons program.

He said China’s assistance to the North, its longtime communist ally, was meant to aid the country’s development and “improvement of people’s livelihood.”

U.N. sanctions imposed after the isolated country’s rocket launch and nuclear tests appear nonetheless to be helping push the North toward dialogue, Japanese officials say.

The isolated country, meanwhile, marked the 64th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Workers’ Party with calls to unite around leader Mr. Kim - though there was no mention of the nuclear standoff.

Apart from the North Korea issue, Mr. Wen and his counterparts discussed climate change, the world financial crisis and moves to deepen already close economic and trade ties.

Japan’s Mr. Hatoyama said cutting back on economic stimulus measures could derail the still-feeble recovery from the financial crisis.

“It may be too early to consider exit strategies,” he said.

Mr. Hatoyama, who took office last month, appears to have won favor with Japan’s closest neighbors by emphasizing his desire to assuage sensitivities over Tokyo’s history of invasion and occupation in the region before and during World War II.

“We have agreed we will seek common ground and shelve our differences,” Mr. Wen said.

The three leaders endorsed the idea of working, albeit gradually, toward a regional economic community, agreeing to begin research on a possible free trade agreement.

While officials emphasized that the vision for a regional community is a long-term and inclusive one, the shift toward a sharper focus on more cooperation within Asia was clear.

“Until now, we have tended to be too reliant on the United States,” Mr. Hatoyama told reporters after the summit.

“The Japan-U.S. alliance remains to be important, but as a member of Asia, I would like to develop policies that focus more on Asia,” he said.

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