Asian and European foreign ministers urged North Korea yesterday to return to talks on its nuclear arms program "without any further delay" as concerns grew that Pyongyang was preparing for an atomic test.
Nearly a year has passed since a third round of six-country talks on the crisis ended inconclusively in Beijing.
North Korea declared in February that it had nuclear arms and would stay away from the talks indefinitely -- a matter the foreign ministers said was a cause for "deep concern."
"[The ministers] strongly urged the DPRK [North Korea] to return to the negotiating table of the six-party talks without any further delay, and to make a strategic decision so as to achieve the denuclearization of the [Korean] peninsula in a peaceful manner through dialogue," said a chairman's statement issued at the end of a two-day Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM).
ASEM, one of the few international groupings not to include the US, comprises 38 countries.
A third round of nuclear talks among the two Koreas, the US, Japan, Russia and China took place last June.
"Over the past 10 months, the six-party talks have not been held and in the meantime, it is highly likely that nuclear weapons development or missile development has proceeded steadily," Japanese Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura told a news conference wrapping up the ASEM gathering.
But a diplomat familiar with the meeting said China was growing irritated at the mounting pressure it faces to persuade Pyongyang.
"It's China's position that it will work on its own initiative, not because of pressure from others," he said.
The Washington Post reported on Saturday that China had rebuffed a request last week by US Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill to cut off North Korea's oil supply as a way of pressuring it to return to the talks.
A US defense official in Washington said on Friday that spy satellite images had shown what could be preparations for an underground nuclear test, although he added the warning that this also might be an elaborate ruse by the North.
"We do hope that North Korea will not take such kinds of measures as to test nuclear weapons," South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon told the news conference, adding that it was in the North's interests to abandon its nuclear arms program in return for economic and energy aid and security assurances from participating countries.
Washington has made clear it would consider taking the matter to the UN Security Council -- a prelude to possible sanctions -- if North Korea kept shunning the talks.
Pyongyang has said sanctions would be tantamount to a declaration of war.
Ban agreed international patience was wearing thin, but he said diplomacy could still succeed.
"The room for negotiations is not completely shut down," he said, adding that participants in the talks should "exert their utmost efforts" to bring Pyongyang back to the negotiating table.
US officials have said they believe Pyongyang has already amassed enough fissile material to make six to eight bombs.
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