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Blair Impressed with Chinese 'Sense of Urgency'  on N. Korea Weapons - 2003-07-21


British Prime Minister Tony Blair says he has found a "far greater sense of urgency" among the Chinese leadership to resolve the question of North Korea's nuclear weapons program. Mr. Blair said it is imperative that North Korea change its ways.

Mr. Blair spent the first of two days in China conferring with the country's top leaders: President Hu Jintao, Premier Wen Jiabao and former President Jiang Zemin.

He later told reporters that he was impressed by the sense of urgency he has found during his visit to East Asia - particularly in China - over the need to end North Korea's nuclear program.

"I think there's a far greater sense of urgency and determination on the part of the Chinese leadership to get this resolved," the prime minister said.

Mr. Blair repeated much of what he had said over the previous two days in Japan and South Korea, although his language Monday was somewhat more direct than he had used before. His criticism of North Korea, where hundreds of thousands have suffered from famine over the past decade, was unusually blunt.

"It can't be acceptable that a country continues to spend billions of dollars on nuclear weapons whilst its people are still starving," Mr. Blair said.

He repeated a call for multilateral talks on the issue, including Japan and South Korea along with North Korea, China and the United States. Pyongyang has insisted on one-on-one talks with Washington.

The North's position on the talks had seemed to be softening somewhat. But in a commentary carried by the official news agency Monday, Pyongyang restated a previous condition for talks: that Washington agree to sign a non-aggression treaty with the North. The Bush administration has so far ruled this out.

Mr. Blair, accompanied by executives from oil, automotive and drug companies, said earlier in the day that he hoped to expand trade with China, which is already more than $11 billion annually.

Earlier, news coverage of Mr. Blair's journey was dominated by a scandal over the suicide of former U.N. weapons inspector David Kelly last week. The British biological warfare expert was the source of a controversial BBC news story accusing the British government of distorting intelligence information in order to justify attacking Iraq.

Mr. Blair has ordered an inquiry into the incident and Monday again refused comment on the matter.

On Tuesday, he heads for Hong Kong, after calling in Beijing for greater democracy in that former British colony. Hong Kong is in the middle of a political uproar over proposed security legislation that many people see as a threat to civil liberties.

Half a million people marched on July 1 to protest the Beijing-backed bill, prompting the city's chief executive to postpone passage of the measure. Mr. Blair Monday called that a "sensible way to proceed."