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China calls for North Korea, U.S. to improve relations

SEOUL, South Korea – China called Friday for better relations and dialogue between North Korea and the U.S. amid an escalating standoff over the North’s rocket launch and its expulsion of U.N. nuclear inspectors.

Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said Beijing will work to maintain the six-nation nuclear disarmament talks that North Korea said it would boycott after the U.N. condemned its launch, according to an interview published Friday in Japan’s Nihon Keizai newspaper. North Korea says it launched a satellite but others have said it was actually testing ballistic missile technology.

China — which is North Korea’s only major ally but backed the U.N. rebuke — “hopes for the development of and improvement in relations between the United States and North Korea,” Yang said in the interview.

He said China was in touch with other members of the six-party negotiations and hinted that Beijing would support bilateral talks between the United States and North Korea, saying “whether bilateral or multilateral, they mutually promote” relations.

In Seoul, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak expressed hope that “the path to peace and reconciliation will open widely” in North Korea, according to the text of a speech on Friday to mark the anniversary of a nationwide pro-democracy student uprising.

Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency left North Korea’s main nuclear site in Yongbyon north of Pyongyang on Thursday after removing all seals and switching off surveillance cameras, the IAEA said in a statement.

They arrived in Beijing on a flight later in the day, but declined to speak to reporters.

Four U.S. experts monitoring the nuclear plant in Yongbyon were also preparing to depart after North Korea ordered them out, the State Department said. A small group of experts have been rotating into Yongbyon since November 2007.

State Department spokesman Robert Wood said the four U.S. nuclear experts were preparing to leave in the “next several days.” Wood said the U.S. has talked with North Korea about the expulsion and reiterated that the North would have to face consequences for “kicking these personnel out.”

“We’ll have to see what those consequences are,” Wood said.

Separately, Japan’s Kyodo News agency reported Thursday that the U.S. said it will not pursue direct talks with North Korea at the expense of the six-party talks.

Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg made the comment Thursday to Seiji Maehara, a top official in Japan’s main opposition Democratic Party, Kyodo reported from Washington.

Steinberg also told Maehara that the U.S. will call for talks with China, Japan, Russia and South Korea by the end of this month on how to deal with the North.

The U.S. proposed additional economic sanctions on North Korea at a U.N. sanctions committee meeting Wednesday. Wood said the U.N. committee will have further consultations on the proposal.

North Korea ordered the monitors out on Tuesday after the U.N. Security Council unanimously condemned the North’s April 5 rocket launch as a violation of previous resolutions barring it from ballistic missile-related activity. The U.S., Japan and other nations have accused North Korea of using the launch to test long-range missile technology since the delivery systems for sending satellites and missiles are similar.

North Korea, which claims the right to develop a space program, said it launched a satellite into orbit and reacted furiously to the U.N. censure by vowing to boycott international disarmament talks and restart its nuclear program.

The North conducted a nuclear test in 2006 but later agreed to dismantle its nuclear program in return for shipments of fuel oil under a 2007 six-party deal. The process has been stalled since last year by a dispute over how to verify North Korea’s past nuclear activities.

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