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China loath to criticize N.K. nuke program

Foreign ministers of South Korea, China to meet in Beijing next week

Tackling North Korea’s uranium enrichment activities within the framework of the stalled six-nation dialogue is the best solution so far, a senior Chinese diplomat said this week, repeating his government’s reluctance to seek a U.N. condemnation of the program.

Hu Zhengyue, Beijing’s assistant foreign minister, also called on South Korea to “unconditionally rejoin” the multinational peace talks with the communist North, pressing Seoul ahead of the meeting of the two countries’ foreign ministers next week.

As North Korea’s last-remaining ally, China has been reluctant to support a joint move by Seoul and Washington to get the U.N. Security Council to condemn the uranium program before reopening the stalled six-party talks.

The talks involving the two Koreas, the U.S., China, Japan and Russia have been stalled since the end of 2008, deepening Pyongyang’s financial isolation and causing a headache for Beijing, which does not want Washington exercising too much influence over the divided peninsula.

“The uranium enrichment issue has not been discussed at the Security Council, and neither China nor the U.S. officially acknowledges the program,” Hu told South Korean reporters currently visiting Beijing as part of a journalist exchange program. “The best way to discuss this issue would be via the six-party talks.”

North Korea, which has conducted two atomic tests in the past, disclosed what is said to be a sophisticated uranium enrichment facility to a U.S. expert in November, sparking renewed concerns about its ongoing nuclear ambitions. Uranium enrichment would provide North Korea with an additional way of making atomic bombs, second to its known plutonium-based program.

South Korea has been escalating efforts to win Beijing’s support in taking the issue to the U.N. Security Council, one of the conditions it considers necessary to restart the six-party talks.

China has repeatedly expressed reluctance to join the attempt, claiming such a move will only deepen tensions between the two Koreas, who are technically still at war.

Seoul has so far also failed to get North Korea to admit, let alone apologize for, the two deadly attacks last year, another issue that has been pushing the two Koreas apart and causing trouble to an immediate resumption of the six-nation dialogue.

The uranium program is expected to top the agenda when Seoul’s Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan holds talks with his counterpart Yang Jiechi in Beijing next week.

During the three-day trip from March 28, which will be Kim’s first official trip to China since he took office last year, the minister will also meet with Chinese leader Wen Jiabao, according to the Foreign Ministry here.

The two foreign ministers will also discuss ways of improving bilateral ties especially as Seoul and Beijing will be celebrating the 20th anniversary since the two sides forged diplomatic ties next year, it said.

Foreign ministers of China and South Korea agreed in March last year to hold talks each year to strengthen their “strategic cooperative partnership.”

 By Shin Hae-in (