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Obama, Hu summit draws attention in Seoul

With the U.S. and China expected to try resolving their once complicated relations by emphasizing common goals at their summit this week, South Korea is preparing for any changes which may occur in the regional powers’ attitude toward North Korea.

U.S. President Barack Obama and his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao are expected to discuss a wide range of economic and diplomatic issues Thursday, including how to deal with the belligerent North Korea and its nuclear ambitions.

The meeting comes as regional powers have been discussing conditions under which they can resume peace talks with Pyongyang, who conducted two deadly attacks against Seoul and unveiled a new uranium enrichment facility last year.

Washington and Beijing, which had previously been at odds over when and how to resume the stalled denuclearization talks, are expected to map out even a vague timeline after the summit, a move that could pressure the reluctant South Korea.

North Korea conducted deadly attacks against a South Korean warship and a border island last year, ratcheting up tensions to their highest level in decades.

South Korea, which had dozens of sailors and two civilians killed, has been demanding Pyongyang make a sincere apology to restore relations, a critical condition to restart larger-scale talks with Seoul as well as the U.S., Japan, China and Russia.

North Korea, going through an unstable power transfer from its ailing dictator Kim Jong-il to his youngest son, is in apparent need of outside aid to supply food and fuel to its hunger-stricken people.

The Kim Jong-il regime, however, has been reluctant to admit responsibility in attacking Seoul and has not taken any action to prove its willingness to disarm as it previously agreed under a 2005 pact with dialogue partners.

North Korea will be among the major topics at the summit in Washington, the White House said.

Mentioning Iran and North Korea among the security issues that will be discussed by Obama and Hu, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs called important “the role that the Chinese have to play in that region of the world in dealing with countries like North Korea.”

The U.S. and its two main Asian allies consider China a vital player in attempts to contain Pyongyang’s aggression against South Korea and its development of nuclear weapons.

Despite international pressure to help rein in North Korea’s growing belligerence, Beijing has been calling for immediate and unconditional resumption of the six-nation talks aimed at denuclearizing Pyongyang.

Among members of the multinational talks, including the two Koreas, Japan, the U.S. and Russia, China is considered to have the most influence over Pyongyang as its last-remaining ally and largest financial donor.

In an interview with the U.S. media, Hu reiterated the call for an early restart of the talks saying “relevant parties (should) resume the process of dialogue as soon as possible to ensure that the situation on the peninsula will move forward in a positive direction.”

Meanwhile the Seoul government continues to snub Pyongyang’s call for inter-Korean dialogue, dismissing it as a plot to secure aid.

Speaking at a recent ceremony, South Korean Unification Minister Hyun In-taek again dismissed Pyongyang’s recent offers of talks as insincere, demanding an apology for its provocations.

“Without these (apologies), inter-Korean dialogue cannot move forward at all. It is they (North Korea) who hold the key to restoring relations,” Hyun said.

However, experts here claim Seoul will be pressured by regional powers to change its position sooner or later even if North Korea does not yield to its demand following the result of the Hu-Obama summit.

“The summit will show how much further the U.S. will continue to support South Korea’s position that it has to first secure an apology and make peace with the North for the six-party talks to restart,” a diplomatic source in Seoul said.

By Shin Hae-in (hayney@heraldcorp.com)
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