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(2nd LD) S. Korea welcomes outcome of U.S.-China summit

All Headlines 18:13 January 20, 2011

(ATTN: RECASTS paras 9-12)
By Chang Jae-soon

SEOUL, Jan. 20 (Yonhap) -- South Korea welcomed the outcome of the U.S.-China summit Thursday after the high-stakes meeting called for "sincere and constructive" inter-Korean dialogue and expressed "concern" about North Korea's uranium enrichment program.

U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao held a summit in Washington on Wednesday (U.S. time) that touched on a wide range of issues, including heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula over Pyongyang's military provocations and nuclear programs.

The joint statement issued after the meeting said that the two leaders "emphasized importance of an improvement in North-South relations and agreed that sincere and constructive inter-Korean dialogue is an essential step," a stance that is in line with the South's position.

Obama and Hu also "expressed concern regarding the DPRK's claimed uranium enrichment program" and called for "the necessary steps that would allow for early resumption" of the six-party talks on the North's nuclear programs, according to the statement.

DPRK stands for the North's official name, Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

"Our government welcomes that the leaders of the United States and China agreed to continue close cooperation for peace and security on the Korean Peninsula and denuclearization," Foreign Ministry spokesman Kim Young-sun said during a regular briefing.

Kim also called the outcome "positive," saying the references to inter-Korean dialogue, the uranium program and the six-party talks "sufficiently reflect" the results of close consultation between Seoul and Washington, and "conform to the policy directions that our government has taken.

"North Korea should seriously take this demand and concern from the international community and immediately halt all its nuclear activity and change its attitude in a serious and responsible manner for improvement in inter-Korean relations," the spokesman said.

China's agreement to voice concern about the uranium program represents a step forward because Beijing has so far been reluctant to even acknowledge the program's existence and went so far as to say that the North has the right to peaceful use of nuclear power at a time when Pyongyang claims the program is for power generation.

The apparent change in position may bode well for South Korea's push to take the matter to the Council as Beijing has opposed the move, saying the program must first be verified. China, the North's the last-remaining major ally, is among the five veto-holding permanent members of the Council.

A high-level South Korean official said that the change in China's stance is "noticeable" and that he expects it will serve as a basis for handling the matter in the future.

"Our position is that the Security Council should deal with this issue first before six-party talks are held," he said on condition of anonymity. "This is a matter that the Security Council should first make a judgment on. We should not waste time arguing about the characteristics of the North's uranium program at the six-party talks."

Tension on the Korean Peninsula spiked in November last year after North Korea shelled the South's border island of Yeonpyeong, killing four people, including two civilians, and revealed that the regime is running a uranium enrichment facility.

Uranium, if highly enriched, can be weapons-grade, giving Pyongyang a second way of building nuclear weapons after its existing program based on plutonium, with which the communist nation conducted two nuclear test explosions in 2006 and 2009.

Seoul and Washington have called for a tougher international response to the North's uranium enrichment program, saying it violates U.N. Security Council resolutions and Pyongyang's own 2005 commitment to give up nuclear programs in exchange for concessions.

However, a foreign ministry official cautioned against hasty optimism about China's position, saying that expressing concern is one thing and how to deal with it is another.

"We should hear more about how the two sides agreed to deal with it," he said, also requesting anonymity. "In light of the Chinese stance so far, chances of its agreement (to any Council action) are not high."

Since the start of this year, North Korea has stepped up peace overtures and called for unconditional talks with the South, a move that fits the typical pattern of Pyongyang's behavior of raising tensions with provocations and then calling for dialogue to extract concessions.

In response, South Korea and the U.S. have said that Pyongyang should first improve relations with Seoul by taking responsibility for the island shelling as well as the March sinking of a South Korean warship, and demonstrate its denuclearization commitment through action.

Six-party talks bring together the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the U.S. The talks have been stalled for more than two years since the last meeting in December 2008.

jschang@yna.co.kr
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