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Beijing, Seoul Pledge Cooperation to End N. Korean Nuclear Ambitions - 2003-05-02

China and South Korea have pledged to cooperate in negotiating an end to North Korean's nuclear weapons ambitions. The two leaders spoke by phone Friday about the security issue.

South Korea's President Roh Moo-hyun phoned his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao to express thanks for hosting last week's talks in Beijing with the United States and North Koreans.

A statement from the South Korean presidential residence, the Blue House, says the two leaders agree the Korean Peninsula should be kept nuclear-free and that last week's trilateral talks were "useful." The presidents reassured each other they will continue to cooperate toward a peaceful solution of the North Korean nuclear issue.

China's role in the trilateral talks made it possible for the United States to discuss the nuclear issue with North Korea. U.S. officials have consistently refused to negotiate one-on-one with Pyongyang, saying the nuclear problem is a regional one that demands multilateral attention. South Korean observers were in Beijing to monitor those talks, but had no formal role. North Korea views the nuclear issue as one between it and the United States alone.

Friday's phone call between the South Korean and Chinese presidents may leave the door open for Beijing to use its leverage in future dealings with North Korea. China is Pyongyang's only strategic ally, and provides a critical source of food and fuel to North Korea's gasping economy. But Beijing is hesitant to take any action, which could lead to a flood of North Korean refugees over its borders.

President Roh has had to back away from promises that South Korea - which is most at risk - would be in the forefront of resolving the nuclear issue after North Korea excluded Seoul from the Beijing talks. The South Korean leader now says it is not important who participates in the diplomatic negotiations as long as South Korea's interests are represented.

The nuclear dispute began in October, when the United States confronted North Korea with what it said was evidence Pyongyang had an active nuclear weapons program - in violation of several international non-proliferation accords.

U.S. officials say North Korea admitted to possessing at least one nuclear weapon during the Beijing talks. Pyongyang has not confirmed that, but it has been edging closer to a public admission of its nuclear capability.

A recent North Korean statement blamed U.S. policy for forcing Pyongyang to possess what it calls a "necessary deterrent." North Korea is demanding the United States sign a non-aggression treaty and provide other concessions before addressing its nuclear ambitions. The United States says such concessions would reward blackmail.