Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her South Korean and Japanese counterparts called for conciliatory steps by North Korea on Monday before six-party talks with Pyongyang can resume. The three-way ministerial meeting in Washington followed last month's artillery attack by North Korea on a South Korean island.
China has been pushing for an emergency meeting of the six-party talks as a means of easing tensions in the aftermath of the November 23 island shelling - the first North Korean attack on a South Korean civilian area since the Korean War armistice was signed in 1953.
Although welcoming the Chinese initiative, Clinton, South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan and Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara said there should be no diplomatic reward for North Korea's actions, and that Pyongyang must first improve the political climate.
Reading a statement at the close of the unusual trilateral meeting, Clinton said President Barack Obama made the same point hours earlier in a telephone call to Chinese President Hu Jintao.
"Last night, President Obama spoke with Chinese President Hu," said Hillary Clinton. "They reaffirmed the importance of a denuclearized Korean peninsula. And we appreciate Beijing's initiative to propose an emergency six-party gathering. However, we first need an appropriate basis for the resumption of talks. Any effort must start, of course, with North Korea ceasing all provocative and belligerent behavior."
Clinton said North Korea must act to improve relations with South Korea, comply with international obligations and take concrete steps to implement the September 2005 joint statement of the six-party talks.
Pyongyang at the time agreed in principle to scrap its nuclear program in return for aid and diplomatic incentives from the other participants - South Korea, Japan, the United States, Russia and host China.
But the talks broke down in 2008, with the political atmosphere steadily deteriorating since then amid North Korean missile and nuclear tests, the sinking of a South Korean navy vessel in March, and the November 23 artillery barrage.
At a joint press conference with her South Korean and Japanese counterparts, Clinton said China - North Korea's main trading partner and aid provider - has a "vital role" to play in diplomacy with Pyongyang.
"They have a unique relationship with North Korea," she said. "And we would hope that China would work with us to send a clear unmistakable message to North Korea that they have to demonstrate a seriousness of purpose in ending their provocative actions. There are many ways of doing that, and we will be focused on trying to work with our allies and our partners in the six-party talks to deliver that message."
A written joint statement reaffirmed U.S. defense commitments to South Korea and Japan as essential to maintaining peace and stability in northeast Asia.
Clinton said Navy Admiral Michael Mullen, the chairman of the U.S. military joint chiefs of staff, was leaving Washington late Monday for talks with security officials in Seoul and Tokyo.
She said a high-level U.S. diplomatic team will head to the region next week for follow-up talks to Monday's trilateral meeting.