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Asian diplomacy kicks into high gear amid fears of North Korean nuclear test

Asian diplomacy kicks into high gear amid fears of North Korean nuclear test

North Korea's neighbors rushed on Wednesday to forge a common front following Pyongyang's threat of a nuclear test, announcing a series of summits over the next week to coordinate policy and soothe frayed relations.
In a major breakthrough, the government of Japan's new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, announced it would hold back-to-back summits with China and South Korea on Sunday and Monday in a drive to repair damaged ties with its neighbors.
South Korea also announced President Roh Moo-hyun would hold a separate summit in Beijing with Chinese President Hu Jintao and other officials Oct. 13 to find ways of persuading Pyongyang not to go ahead with its threat, issued Tuesday, to detonate a weapon.
The apparent effort to work together contrasts with the fractured reaction to North Korea's barrage of missile tests in July, in which China and South Korea accused Japan of overreacting by pushing for sanctions on Pyongyang.
The announcement of Tokyo's two meetings with its neighbors was a victory for Abe, a nationalist who came to office last week with a program of both making Japan a major player on the world stage and bolstering ties with the rest of Asia.
"We intend to move forward in a future-looking relationship with our important neighbors China and South Korea by expending every effort to engage in dialogue and working closely together with them," Abe said in parliament Wednesday before the announcement.
Abe was scheduled to travel to Beijing on Sunday to meet with China's President Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao, in Japan and China's first summit since 2001. On Monday, Abe was scheduled for a meeting with South Korea's President Roh in Seoul _ the first time Roh has met with a Japanese leader in nearly a year.
North Korea will be a prime order of business. A nuclear test would be a first for the reclusive communist regime, confirming its claim to possess atomic bombs and greatly raising tensions in an already jittery region.
On Wednesday, Roh called for a "cool-headed and stern" response to the test threat, while Abe declared that Tokyo could not accept such a test. China, a North Korean ally, appealed to Pyongyang for calm and restraint.
A united front on North Korea will not be easy, however, since the three nations come to the table with different views and interests.
Japan, the top U.S. ally in East Asia, has been the most hard-line against Pyongyang. The North Korean regime is virulently anti-Japanese, and fired a test missile over northern Japan in 1998.
China, meanwhile, is a North Korean ally and benefactor. While Beijing is unhappy about Pyongyang causing trouble, it also is likely to oppose any moves to pressure the regime.
South Korea has also taken a soft approach, preferring to engage Pyongyang with trade and other exchanges in hopes of coaxing it out of isolation.
The summits, however, could presage a reversal in the rapid deterioration in Tokyo's ties to the region.
"The Chinese and Japanese sides have reached a consensus on overcoming political obstacles that have affected relations and on promoting the healthy development of friendly, cooperative relations," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said in a statement.
Though their commercial relations are booming, political ties between Japan and China have fizzled, buffeted by disputes over offshore oil and gas rights and Japan's desire to assume a greater international role.
A major irritant have been visits by Abe's predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, to Yasukuni war shrine, which honors executed war criminals among Japan's 2.5 million war dead _ visits supported by Abe.
Koizumi argued the pilgrimages were a natural way of paying homage to fallen soldiers, but China and South Korea consider the shrine a glorification of past Japanese militarism, and saw the visits as a sign Tokyo does not fully repent for its past aggressions.
Abe, a firm supporter of the shrine, reportedly prayed there in April, but has refused to confirm that visit or to say whether he would go as prime minister. Unlike Koizumi, he did not pledge to visit during his campaign.
Abe apparently succeeded in clinching the summits without publicly declaring that he would not visit Yasukuni, though any future visits will be certain to displease China and South Korea.
Despite the absence of any firm commitment on Yasukuni, the improvement in relations was important to all the parties, said Akihiko Tanaka, international politics expert at Tokyo University.
"The visit became possible because it serves the interest of all three nations," he said. "China and South Korea ... wanted to use the change of government as an opportunity to renew relations with Japan."
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Associated Press writer Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo contributed to this report.


Updated : 2021-07-30 11:47 GMT+08:00