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Monday, June 29, 2009

Aso, Lee confirm cooperation on N. Korea


Staff writer

Prime Minister Taro Aso and South Korean President Lee Myung Bak agreed Sunday to intensify joint efforts to stop Pyongyang's nuclear programs and urged North Korea to abide by a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning its recent nuclear test.

Lee arrived in Tokyo on Sunday for a day of talks as part of the shuttle diplomacy designed to build closer relations between the two nations, after bilateral ties soured during the tenure of Lee's predecessor, the late Roh Moo Hyun.

"Japan, South Korea and the U.S. must work in coordination," Aso said.

"We must unite and properly handle the matter" to get Pyongyang to drop its nuclear programs and become part of the international community, Lee replied at the outset of the meeting as reporters watched.

North Korea has remained confrontational, announcing it will proceed with its uranium enrichment program for military use, even though the U.N. has condemned the hermit state's May 25 nuclear test.

Sunday's meeting was the eighth the two leaders have had since Aso took office last September, with a Foreign Ministry official describing the frequent shuttle diplomacy as a sign of a "mature partnership."

"This was not a visit to resolve a pending matter, but an occasion for the two heads of state to speak frankly," the official said.

Even so, responding to North Korea's belligerence topped the agenda.

The two sides agreed that implementing the U.N. resolution is a vital step in facing the threat.

Aso and Lee exchanged opinions on holding a meeting with the U.S., China and Russia to discuss the future of the six-party talks, which have been at a stalemate since Pyongyang's withdrawal earlier this year.

They also agreed to consider arranging a meeting of the five countries apart from North Korea to explore ways to break the diplomatic impasse, Aso said.

"North Korea's nuclear and missile issues are serious threats to the security of the region," Aso said during a joint news conference after the meeting.

"We also agreed that collaboration with China is imperative" to urge the North to abandon its nuclear programs, Aso said.

He said Japan and South Korea will hold a working-level meeting Wednesday to revive talks on a free-trade agreement, which have been stalled since 2004 due to disagreements on trade barriers.

"A free-trade agreement is in line with the global trend," Lee said. "There is a chance that we could reach an agreement sooner than expected."

According to a Foreign Ministry official, Aso and Lee avoided touching on thorny historical disputes during their closed-door meeting, and they did not discuss the territorial dispute over Takeshima Island, known as Dokdo in South Korea.

The officials said Aso asked Lee to support Japan's bid to host the 2016 Summer Olympics. Lee replied he would relay the message to the parties concerned in his country, adding it would be favorable for South Korea if the Games are held in Japan.

During their news conference, Lee said he asked Aso to grant Korean residents in Japan the right to vote in local elections.

Many permanent residents of Korean descent, mostly descendants of Koreans who came to Japan before or during World War II and had Japanese citizenship, have long demanded that they should be allowed to vote in local elections while retaining their postwar Korean citizenship.

"Considering their historical background, I requested active cooperation from Prime Minister Aso," Lee said.



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