Foreign ministers of South Korea and China made little progress in narrowing differences over how to deal with North Korea's uranium-based nuclear program, with Beijing sticking to its opposition to bring the issue to the U.N. Security Council, sources said.
The nuclear issue was a key topic at the talks in Beijing between South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan and Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, as Seoul seeks a U.N. Security Council presidential statement condemning the North's uranium enrichment program.
China is opposed to the move, claiming that the matter should be dealt with at six-party talks.
Kim sought China's cooperation for Seoul's efforts at the Security Council, stressing that the North's uranium program constitutes a violation of U.N. resolutions and therefore, it is inevitable for the global security body to take up the matter.
But China stuck to its long-running calls for reopening the six-party talks, sources said.
After the talks, China's Foreign Ministry spokesperson Jiang Yu reiterated Beijing's opposition to bring the uranium issue to the Security Council while calling for restarting the six-party talks involving the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the U.S.
On Kim's talks with Yang, the spokesperson said that the two countries agreed to strengthen cooperation in all areas and move their "strategic cooperation partnership" forward. She said that the two ministers discussed the situation on the Korean Peninsula and an early resumption of the nuclear talks.
Seoul's chief nuclear envoy, Wi Sung-lac, is accompanying Kim on the trip to China. Wi is expected to have further discussions on the uranium issue when he meets with his Chinese counterpart, Wu Dawei, on Wednesday.
South Korea wants to get the Security Council to define the illicit nature of the uranium program before reopening the six-party talks with North Korea so as to prevent Pyongyang from claiming that the program is for peaceful purposes.
But Beijing, the last-remaining major ally of Pyongyang, is concerned that U.N. condemnation of Pyongyang could aggravate tensions. Backing from China is crucial for any Security Council move because it is a veto-holding permanent member at the council.
Kim's three-day trip to China came amid rumors that Kim Jong-un, the heir-apparent son of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, may visit China sometime next month. Pyongyang's parliamentary speaker Choe Thae-bok visited Beijing Saturday on his way to Britain, prompting speculation that he might have discussed the matter with Chinese officials.
But the issue was not brought up at Kim's talks with Yang, sources said.
Kim briefed Yang on recent developments in inter-Korean relations, including Seoul's repatriation of 27 North Koreans who entered South Korea on a drifting boat, and a meeting of civilian experts on potential volcano eruption at the North's Mount Paekdu.
Yang told Kim that he was pleased with the repatriation of the North Koreans.
Kim also raised concern about the safety of North Korea's nuclear facilities, saying Seoul and Beijing should discuss the matter. But Yang did not show any particular reaction to Kim's suggestion, sources said.
Despite differences over the nuclear standoff, the two sides agreed that the North Korean nuclear issue "should not affect relations between the two countries" and they also agreed to expand mutual trust by strengthening high-level exchanges, sources said.
Kim proposed that the two countries hold a bilateral summit on the sidelines of a three-way summit with Japan set for May. China agreed to consider the suggestion positively, sources said.
In addition, Kim invited Chinese President Hu Jintao to visit South Korea for next year's nuclear security summit and proposed a bilateral summit with South Korea on its sidelines.
Kim also invited Deputy Chinese Premier Wang Qishan and Yang to visit Seoul this year.
South Korea and China established diplomatic relations in 1992.
Since then, the two countries have made strides in their economic and trade relations, with China overtaking the U.S. as South Korea's No. 1 trade partner.
But their political and security relations have not moved forward enough to match the flourishing economic ties, with China still seen as reluctant to exercise its influence to rein in the provocative regime in Pyongyang.