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Threat unites North Korea's neighbors

SEOUL -- North Korea's neighbors scrambled yesterday to forge a common front against Pyongyang's threatened nuclear test, with South Korea warning of a regional atomic arms race that could upend the regional balance of power.

The cooperative efforts displayed by Japan, China, and South Korea marked a sharp contrast with the fractured reaction to a series of North Korean missile tests in July. In that incident, China and South Korea accused Japan of overreacting.

Yesterday, China -- the North's main ally and key benefactor -- appealed to Pyongyang to show calm and restraint, issuing an unusually pointed statement that referred to North Korea by name, instead of its usual appeals for all sides to remain calm.

Japan, China, and South Korea announced a series of summit meetings over the next week to repair damaged ties and coordinate a strategy. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan will meet with Chinese President Hu Jintao on Sunday and South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun on Monday. Roh will then visit Beijing for talks with Hu and other officials on Oct. 13.

The three countries are key players -- along with the United States and Russia -- in the long-stalled six-nation talks aimed at persuading the impoverished communist regime to give up its nuclear ambitions in return for badly needed economic aid.

The joint effort occurred a day after North Korea triggered global alarm by saying it will undertake an unprecedented nuclear test in a step toward building the atomic arsenal it views as a deterrent against any US attack.

It was the first time the North has publicly announced plans to conduct a nuclear test, though recent reports have said it may be preparing one. North Korea claims to have nuclear weapons, but detonating one would be the first proof of such capabilities.

Russia's defense minister voiced concern about the environmental consequences in neighboring Russian territory. ``The nuclear tests in North Korea, if they take place, could cause ecological damage in Russia," Sergei Ivanov said on a visit to a Russian air base in Kyrgyzstan.

The United States said it has warned Pyongyang not to stage a nuclear test. ``We are not going to live with a nuclear North Korea," Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill said yesterday.

Hill, the chief envoy to disarmament talks, said the United States has passed a message of ``deep concern" through diplomatic channels at the United Nations but has yet to hear back from North Korea.

A US intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the United States is now seeing the movement of people, materials, automobiles, and other activity around one possible test site, but it could be similar to the activity that was seen a couple months ago. At that time, no test occurred.

South Korea's top official on dealings with the North, Unification Minister Lee Jong-seok, said yesterday there were no signs of an imminent test. And Japan's Asahi newspaper reported that two Japanese spy satellites focusing on a suspected underground test site had not observed any activities apparently connected to test preparations as of Tuesday.

While North Korean leader Kim Jong Il may decide to hold the test, it cannot be ruled out that the announcement is saber-rattling, an effort to force a change in the stalled diplomatic negotiations.

Lee, however, warned there was a strong possibility North Korea would go ahead with a test if ``efforts to resume the six-party talks fail."

North Korea has boycotted six-nation nuclear talks for nearly a year, angered by American financial restrictions imposed over the North's alleged illegal activities such as money laundering and counterfeiting.

Any display of Pyongyang's nuclear force could trigger a regional arms race, South Korean Vice Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan warned.

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