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China presses N. Korea on talks

Seeks dialogue on nuclear issue

BEIJING -- President Hu Jintao of China stepped up pressure on North Korea yesterday to return to nuclear talks, telling its visiting premier that dialogue is the only way to settle the dispute.

Hu offered Beijing's help in arranging new talks as he met with Premier Pak Pong Ju, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.

Hu told Pak that ''dialogue is the only correct choice for peacefully resolving the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula," Xinhua said. It added that Hu promised to see that Pyongyang's ''rational concerns" were resolved -- a reference to the North's demands for security guarantees if it gives up trying to make nuclear weapons.

Washington has been urging China to use its status as the North's main aid donor to prod Pyongyang back to the six-nation talks, which also include Japan, South Korea, and Russia. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice suggested Monday that Pyongyang might face sanctions if it does not cooperate.

In Waco, Texas, President Bush suggested there was no deadline for North Korea to return to the negotiations, saying, ''I'm a patient person." But, Bush said, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il must understand that the other five parties to the talks want a nuclear-weapons free Korean peninsula.

''For the sake of peace and tranquility and stability in the Far East, Kim Jong Il must listen," he said.

Hu's comments, though mildly phrased, were unusually blunt and forceful for the Chinese leader, whose public statements are rarely so direct.

''It is in our common interests to stick to a nuclear-weapon-free Korean Peninsula, resolve [the] DPRK's rational concerns, and maintain peace and stability on the peninsula," Hu was quoted as saying, referring to the North by the initials of its formal name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Xinhua said he promised that Beijing would ''play a constructive role in restarting" the talks.

Pak said Tuesday the North might be willing to return to the stalled talks if unspecified conditions were met, according to the Chinese government. It has not said what those were, but Pyongyang has demanded Washington end its ''hostile policy" and apologize for calling the North an ''outpost of tyranny."

Beijing took the lead in organizing three rounds of talks beginning in 2003, but the North refused to attend a fourth round in September 2004.

Pak said Tuesday that Pyongyang might be willing to return ''if the conditions are right," according to China's Foreign Ministry.

North Korea claimed Monday to have expanded its nuclear arsenal to guard against possible US attack. That claim could not be verified. Beijing also apparently wants to use Pak's visit to lobby the North to speed up Chinese-style changes to revive its decrepit economy and reduce dependence on foreign food aid.

China is believed to supply up to one-third of the North's food and one-quarter of its energy. But Beijing insists it has little influence over the Stalinist regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and has resisted US appeals to pressure its ally.

Analysts say the North's recent declaration that it has nuclear weapons might prompt China to force Pyongyang back into talks. But they say Beijing might be holding out for a US overture to make the North return willingly.

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