TOKYO (Reuters) - Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao defended six-party talks proposed by Beijing as the way to defuse volatile divisions on the Korean peninsula, even as China hosted North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, blamed by Japan and South Korea for inflaming regional tensions.
Wen made the comments at a summit meant to highlight harmony between Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing in the wake a deadly earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan in March. But the North Korean leader Kim’s latest trip to China, coinciding with the summit, exposed entrenched disagreements on how to handle Pyongyang.
At the trilateral meeting in Tokyo, Wen joined Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak in voicing concern about North Korea’s “claimed” uranium enrichment, which could give it a second pathway to making nuclear weapons.
Wen also defended talks between the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States, stalled for more than two years, as the best way to defuse confrontation with North Korea over its nuclear weapons development, which has so far included two nuclear test blasts.
“The Chinese side has been constantly urging peace and negotiations and a restart to the six-party talks,” Wen told a joint news conference. “We’re convinced that only dialogue and consultations are the ultimate way forward for resolving the peninsula’s problems.”
Wen’s comments, together with Kim Jong-il’s reported surprise visit to China that began on Friday, highlighted how North Korea and its nuclear activities continue to divide the big powers of northeast Asia, even while they talk up economic cooperation and the need for more trust after a rocky 2010.
Washington, Tokyo and Seoul have long sought China’s help to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear ambitions.
China, however, sees North Korea as a strategic bulwark against the United States and its regional allies. In recent years, Beijing has sought to shore up relations with the North with more aid and trade and visits there by its leaders.
Neither China nor its neighbour and ally North Korea has confirmed that Kim is visiting. Both are habitually secretive about such trips.
But Premier Wen Jiabao on Sunday told South Korean President Lee Myung-bak that Kim Jong-il was indeed travelling through China to study “economic development”, Yonhap News reported, citing a South Korean presidential aide.
Wen said Kim’s trip would “offer the opportunity to understand China’s development and utilize it for North Korea’s development”, according to Yonhap, citing Lee’s public relations aide Hong Sang-pyo.
Yonhap also reported that it appeared Kim was heading towards the scenic city of Yangzhou, near Shanghai, citing a local source as saying security had tightened around railway station there. It is also possible that Kim may visit Shanghai.
China has repeatedly called for renewed six-party talks, and Wen repeated that call.
But Washington, Seoul and Tokyo have been lukewarm towards such talks, worried that they could be seen as rewarding Pyongyang for its deadly attack on a South Korean island late last year.
At the joint post-summit press conference in Tokyo, Wen said nothing about North Korea’s nuclear build-up, but Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan voiced concerns about North Korea’s uranium enrichment programme and said the three leaders agreed that some of the impetus rests with Pyongyang for making talks happen.
“We reaffirmed that the three countries would work together to try to have North Korea to take specific action to resolve issues of concern,” Kan said.
“We agreed that for the resumption of six-party talks, there must first be a forward-looking stance from North Korea in dialogue between North and South Korea.”
Kurt Campbell, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, told reporters in Tokyo that he had no information on Kim’s visit to China, but prodded China to urge the North to engage with the South and other countries.
“Obviously we value China’s role in terms of engaging North Korea and we ask them to take a very clear stand on encouraging North Korea to engage responsibly with South Korea and also the international community,” he said.
The Japanese foreign ministry earlier said Kan and Wen had discussed Kim Jong-il’s trip, effectively confirming his current visit to Pyongyang’s only ally.
Tension on the Korean peninsula rose to its highest levels since the 1950-53 Korean War last year, after the sinking of a Southern ship killed 46 sailors, an exchange of artillery fire around the South’s island, revelations of fresh nuclear activity by the North and threats of war.
Wen told reporters after the summit that the three leaders were “happy to see some easing in the situation on the Korean peninsula”, but that many uncertainties persisted.
Additional reporting by Isabel Reynolds in Tokyo and Chris Buckley in Beijing; Editing by Alex Richardson