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S. Korea Dismisses Criticism on N. Korean Talks - 2003-04-17

South Korea's president is dismissing criticism about the format of next week's talks in Beijing on the standoff over North Korea's nuclear programs. Some media in Seoul are expressing surprise and anger that South Korea is not being included in the negotiations.

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun on Thursday said progress in resolving the North Korean nuclear dispute is more important than whether his country immediately has a seat at the table. His remarks, released by the presidential Blue House, come a day after it was revealed that the United States and North Korea will meet next week in Beijing with the Chinese serving as host and a participant.

President Roh says next week's talks are initial discussions and he believes they will eventually turn into a multi-lateral framework that will include South Korea. He acknowledged that many people feel the country's pride has been hurt, but he does not think it would be productive for Seoul to insist in inclusion at this time.

President Roh has for months said South Korea would play a leading role in efforts to find a peaceful solution. And this development has left him open to some criticism.

The daily JoongAng Ilbo declared the government's North Korean policy "a big failure." But most of the leading South Korean dailies in the Thursday editions directed their criticism at Pyongyang. They blasted the communist state for accepting five years of aid and support from the South, then excluding Seoul from talks on the fate of the Korean peninsula.

In Japan, government officials are also putting the best face on the fact that Japan and South Korea have not been invited. The government spokesman says that South Korea and Japan, which have been deeply involved with the issue, need to take part in such talks. Mr. Fukuda says the discussions need to set a direction for solving the North Korea nuclear issue.

Japanese Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi says she, too, is certain that the initial talks will lead to multilateral negotiations. The U.S. State Department has given a similar assessment.

The U.S. delegation to the Beijing talks will be headed by Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs James Kelly. He confronted North Korean officials last October in Pyongyang with evidence Washington says it has that they had secretly violated international agreements by pursuing a nuclear weapons program.

North Korea responded with a series of provocative moves, including the expulsion of U.N. inspectors and withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. But last week, North Korea dropped its insistence on one-to-one talks with the United States, saying that it was open to any format for discussion.

Some analysts have suggested that the speedy downfall of the government of Saddam Hussein in Iraq in wake of the assault by U.S.-led forces may have prompted North Korea to soften its position. President George Bush had labeled Iraq, North Korea and Iran an "axis of evil" for possessing weapons of mass destruction and fostering terrorism.