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Seoul, Tokyo bolster cooperation on N.K.

South Korea and Japan reconfirmed their shared position not to unconditionally jump into peace talks with North Korea during their ministerial-level talks this week, giving China and Russia a wide berth on the issue.

Seoul’s Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan said he and his Japanese counterpart Seiji Maehara agreed to “create the necessary terms” for the restart of the stalled international talks on North Korea’s denuclearization, during their talks Wednesday. Kim had taken a two-day trip to the neighboring state for the first time since he took office last year.

The U.S. and its two main Asian allies South Korea and Japan have been stricter toward the conditions North Korea must fulfill to rejoin the multinational denuclearization talks, while China and Russia are keen to immediately resume talks.

The talks involving the two Koreas, the U.S., China, Japan and Russia have been suspended since December 2008, causing further economic isolation for the communist North which has relied largely on the talks for outside aid since 2003.

Believing Pyongyang must clear issues with its rival Seoul before resuming larger-scale talks with regional powers, Tokyo and Washington have also repeatedly urged the reclusive state to apologize for the two attacks conducted last year.

South Korea lost dozens of military personnel and two civilians due to North Korea’s attack against its warship and a border island in March and November last year.

Pyongyang continues to deny responsibility for the provocations, an attitude that led to the breakdown of inter-Korean defense talks last week.

South Korea and Japan are “under strong agreement that certain conditions and better ties between the two Koreas must precede the resumption of the six-party talks,” Kim told a joint news conference Wednesday.

The two sides also agreed North Korea should take “sincere action” regarding the military provocations against Seoul and demonstrate its denuclearization commitment “through specific actions,” the Seoul minister said.

Last month, Japanese minister Maehara expressed a willingness to hold direct talks with Pyongyang over its nuclear programs and abductions of Japanese nationals, triggering concerns here about sending the wrong message.

The agreement this week has shown to North Korea, as well as other dialogue partners, that South Korea and Japan will be working together on the pending issues on the divided peninsula, analysts say.

Geographically close to the Korean Peninsula, Tokyo reacts sensitively toward the nuclear and missiles threats by North Korea, which has conducted two atomic tests and several missiles tests in the past years.

Concerns over Pyongyang’s ongoing nuclear ambitions have been increasing recently as the country unveiled a new uranium enrichment facility to outside experts last year amid an unstable power transfer.

U.S. National Intelligence director James Clapper also told senators this week that Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles pose a serious threat to the U.S., citing the progress the communist state has been making in producing weapons.

During their talks, foreign ministers of Seoul and Tokyo also agreed to continue working on defense cooperation aimed at securing peace on the Korean Peninsula.

Minister Kim also met with Japan’s Prime Minister Naoto Kan and lawmakers including Sengoku Yoshito, acting president of the ruling Democratic Party, and Sadakazu Tanigaki, president of the opposition Liberal Democratic Party, during his trip.

South Korea and Japan have been seeing improved relations after Kan offered an official apology for his country’s 1910-45 brutal colonial rule of Korea.

During his meeting with Kim, the Japanese prime minister promised to make more effort in getting the parliament to agree in returning centuries-old royal Korean books and expressed hopes of resuming talks on a free trade deal with Seoul, the Foreign Ministry here said in a statement Thursday.

By Shin Hae-in (