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Saturday, May 7, 2005

ASEM talks kicks off amid strained ties with neighbors


Staff writer

KYOTO -- The two-day foreign ministerial conference of the Asia-Europe Meeting began in Kyoto on Friday evening as tensions lingered over Japan's rocky relations with its Asian neighbors and its differences with the European Union over the lifting of an arms embargo on China.

Prior to the opening of the ASEM conference, Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura held a series of informal meetings with his counterparts from the European Union, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and South Korea.

Current tension between Japan and neighboring South Korea and China over historical viewpoints and territorial issues as well as Japan's disagreement with the European Union over its plans to lift its arms embargo on China, dominated the discussions.

During Machimura's talks with South Korean Foreign Affairs and Trade Minister Ban Ki Moon, the two sides repeated their positions on the territorial row over disputed islets in the Sea of Japan controlled by South Korea and also claimed by Japan.

Machimura told reporters that the issue was brought up during the talks, but that no progress had been made.

On Monday, Chin Dae Je, the South Korean information and communication minister, paid a surprise visit to the islets -- called Takeshima in Japan and Tok-do in South Korea -- to inspect communications antennas.

Machimura said progress had been made on issues pertaining to history and expressed Japan's desire for a new joint Japanese-South Korean panel of scholars to study various historical issues concerning the two countries.

Machimura said he agreed with Ban that Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi should visit Seoul in late June for talks with President Roh Moo Hyun.

Machimura told reporters that he and Ban shared the view that, despite recent tensions, bilateral relations were headed in a positive direction.

Differences appear to remain between the two on how to pressure North Korea to return to the stalled six-party talks on its nuclear program.

"In June, it will have been nearly a year since the last six-nations conference was held," Machimura told reporters. "Japan seeks a diplomatic solution with China taking a major role. But if the talks cannot be restarted, other options will have to be considered."

Hatsuhisa Takashima, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, said Machimura and Ban did not specifically discuss taking the North Korean nuclear issue to the United Nations Security Council, but acknowledged it was still possible.

"That is one option. But another option is holding five-nation talks without North Korea," Takashima said. South Korea prefers diplomacy without taking the issue to the United Nations, which would normally involve discussing sanctions.

During his talks with EU officials earlier in the day, Machimura repeated Japan's opposition to the EU's plans.

But Jean Asselborn, minister of foreign affairs for Luxembourg, which currently holds the EU presidency, said the issue should be discussed on a rational basis.

"Lifting the embargo does not mean replace with nothing, but means replace with it with a code of conduct," he told a Friday news conference.



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