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China, Japan, SKorea Discuss North Korea Nukes

Leaders of China, Japan and South Korea began talks Saturday in Beijing amid signs that pressure on North Korea to rejoin nuclear disarmament negotiations may be yielding results.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao was due to brief his Japanese and South Korean counterparts on a recent meeting in Pyongyang where North Korean leader Kim Jong Il told Wen his country may end its boycott of the talks, depending on its negotiations with Washington.

The U.S. has not yet publicly responded to that apparent overture. But American officials have said talks with North Korea may be possible if they are part of the six-nation disarmament negotiations that Pyongyang spurned after it was condemned for conducting a rocket launch in April and nuclear test in May.

Japanese officials said late Friday that the U.S. had indicated it might meet with the North and that Pyongyang appears increasingly willing to return to the talks.

"It can be said that the resolution is working to convince the DPRK that it can't go on like this. It must return to the six-party talks," Kazuo Kodama, press secretary to Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada, said Friday, using North Korea's official name: the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

Key to drawing the North back into disarmament talks are U.N. sanctions imposed after the rocket launch and nuclear test.

Pyongyang earlier had insisted it would never return to the talks, which involve China, Japan, the two Koreas, Russia and the U.S. Kim's offer of dialogue appears to reflect the North's keenness for direct engagement with Washington _ a perennial demand.

On Friday, Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said they agreed the North should not be given aid until it begins to dismantle its nuclear weapons program.

"We should not resume any economic assistance unless North Korea shows commitment and takes concrete steps" toward nuclear abandonment, Hatoyama told a joint news conference with Lee.

Hatoyama has backed a proposal by Lee to offer a one-time "grand bargain" of aid and concessions in exchange for denuclearization _ rather than the step-by-step process pursued over the past six years.

But winning China's overt support for such an approach may be difficult given Beijing's longtime support for its impoverished ally.

But that role also gives Beijing relatively stronger influence with the North.

North Korea is pushing to send its deputy nuclear envoy Ri Gun to the United States later this month for a private security forum, a South Korean diplomat said. He asked not to be identified because the forum's organizers have not announced details of the session.

The planned trip raises speculation that Ri could meet with U.S. officials to lay the groundwork for possible direct talks with Washington.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley said Friday that non-governmental organizations have invited Ri to participate in meetings in the U.S., but he said no decision has been made yet "whether to approve that travel."

Apart from their shared desire for a denuclearized Korean peninsula, China, Japan and South Korea are key trading partners.

Relations between Tokyo and its neighbors have been strained, however, by comments and acts by Hatoyama's conservative predecessors that were seen as glorifying Japan's wartime past.

Hatoyama, visiting Beijing for the first time since taking office last month, has emphasized his desire to assuage sensitivities over Tokyo's history of invasion and occupation in the region before and during World War II, vowing he has the "courage to face up to history."

The message appears well received: Relations have gotten a "good start" under Hatoyama, Dai Bingguo, a state councilor in charge of foreign affairs, told Japan's foreign minister Friday, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.

Hatoyama also has loated the idea of deepening ties by creating an East Asian community that would enhance economic and trade cooperation among nations in the region, although he has been vague about how the bloc would work.

Tokyo envisions such a community including China, South Korea, India, Australia, New Zealand as well as the 10 member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

But Japanese officials say the plan is a long-term one that will not be realized for years to come.