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US calls talks, N.Korea tests missile

Bangkok, Oct. 20 (Reuters): US President George W. Bush, in a policy shift to re-energise talks with North Korea, joined his South Korean counterpart today in calling for a new round as Pyongyang test-fired a short-range missile.

A top aide to Bush, however, cautioned that consultations were just beginning and it would take some time to come up with security guarantees to offer North Korea in exchange for it abandoning its nuclear weapons programme.

Bush and South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun called for a fresh round of six-party talks with Pyongyang on its nuclear programme at an early date and urged reclusive North Korea to refrain from any action that could exacerbate the crisis.

“We’re making good progress on peacefully solving the issue with North Korea,” Bush said before meeting Roh on the sidelines of an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit in Bangkok.

Within hours, North Korea fired a surface-to-ship missile in the sea between the Korean peninsula and Japan in what South Korea said appeared to be part of military exercises by the isolated communist country.

US officials said they regarded the North Korean move as a provocative action aimed at grabbing attention during the Apec summit, but they contended it would only serve to further isolate Pyongyang. “We do not take this as a positive attitude on the part of North Korea,” a Japanese foreign ministry spokesman in Bangkok said.

Bush has ruled out the formal non-aggression pact North Korea wants but has said the US was exploring a possible compromise with its allies in the talks, which include China, South Korea, Russia and Japan. North Korea is the only participant not at Apec. However, officials had no details of possible assurances and said none had been outlined by Bush in any meetings.

South Korea’s Roh has wanted the US to make a gesture to jump start the talks on the nuclear crisis that erupted a year ago when Washington said North Korea had admitted to developing atomic weapons.

“The two Presidents shared the view that it is desirable to hold the next round of the talks at an early date and to make concrete progress,” they said in a statement after their meeting.

The first round of six-party talks was held in Beijing in August. But they ended inconclusively and officials say China is anxious to hold another round before the end of the year. Mid-November is seen as a target period.

“The two Presidents also urged North Korea to respond positively to the other parties’ diplomatic efforts and to refrain from any action which would exacerbate the situation,” the US-South Korean statement said.

North Korea has been reluctant to commit itself to new talks and has issued a series of increasingly inflammatory statements, including a threat to prove it possesses a “nuclear deterrent”.

Besides Roh, Bush has discussed North Korea with the leaders of Japan and China.

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