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S. Korea, Japan, China agree to boost cooperation in disaster management, nuclear safety

   KYOTO, Japan -- South Korea, Japan and China agreed Saturday to work closely together in disaster management and nuclear safety as their foreign ministers met for annual talks that were heavily overshadowed by a devastating earthquake and nuclear crisis.

   South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan, Japanese Foreign Minister Takeaki Matsumoto and Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi began the meeting with a moment of silence for the victims of the March 11 quake and tsunami that ripped through northeast Japan.

   "I express sincere gratitude that the Chinese and South Korean foreign ministers offered to provide assistance," Matsumoto told a joint news conference after the talks. "Under this situation, the three ministers intensively discussed strengthening cooperation in disaster management and nuclear safety."

   Kim said that the three ministers agreed to produce "visible results" in the two areas -- disaster management and nuclear safety -- at a summit of top leaders set for later this year.

   The one-day meeting in the ancient city of Kyoto was meant to lay the groundwork for this year's summit of the three countries and discuss North Korea, regional issues and other matters of cooperation.

   But the gathering, the fifth since 2007, was overshadowed by last week's massive quake and tsunami. By official count, more than 15,000 people have been confirmed dead or missing, and the toll is expected to climb.

   Japan has also been struggling to bring a damaged nuclear power plant under control as radiation levels from the facility in Fukushima, some 250 kilometers northeast of Tokyo, rose following a series of explosions, fueling fears of a nuclear disaster.

   Emergency workers have been trying to cool down red-hot nuclear reactors and fuel rods at the plant. All six reactors at the plant are reported in trouble.

   Other topics up for discussion included North Korea and its nuclear programs.

   Matsumoto said that the three countries expressed "concern" about Pyongyang's newly divulged uranium enrichment program, in addition to its known plutonium-based one.

   Kim also called for a "stern" response from the international community to the uranium program, saying it constitutes a violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions and Pyongyang's own 2005 commitment to give up its nuclear programs.

   Kim also said that the North should first demonstrate its denuclearization commitment through concrete action before restarting the stalled six-party talks with Pyongyang. He also said that the South is willing to talk with the North about the nuclear and other matters.

   But China's Yang made no mention of the uranium enrichment issue and only called for resuming the six-party talks. That illustrates the wide gap between Seoul and Beijing over how to deal with the issue.

   South Korea is seeking to get the U.N. Security Council to adopt a presidential statement condemning the uranium program, but China opposes the move over concerns that it could aggravate tensions.

   Beijing claims the matter should be discussed after restarting the six-party talks.

   Earlier in the day, Kim also met bilaterally with the Japanese and Chinese counterparts.

   In talks with Matsumoto, Kim offered deep condolences for the victims in the disaster and pledged to provide full support for Japan, a South Korean government official said on customary condition of anonymity.

   Matsumoto thanked Kim, saying that Japan considers South Korea a "true neighbor" that offers help in times of difficulty. He also promised that Japan will keep South Korea up to date on the situation at the damaged nuclear power plant, the official said.

   It was the first time that Kim and Matsumoto have held a face-to-face meeting since the Japanese minister took office earlier this month.

   The two ministers also discussed the issue of Japan's ongoing review of middle school textbooks amid concern that the result could hurt the warming relations between the two countries if Tokyo approves texts that lay claim to South Korea's easternmost islets of Dokdo.

   Kim asked Japan to handle the matter "carefully" so that it won't have any negative effect on relations between the two countries. Matsumoto said in response that he understands Seoul's position and that the two countries should make joint efforts to prevent the ties from deteriorating.

   In separate bilateral talks, Kim and Yang, the Chinese minister, agreed that their countries should cooperate to help Japan overcome the disaster, the official said.

   On North Korea, Kim briefed Yang on the status of Seoul's relations with Pyongyang, and the Chinese minister expressed hope for progress in inter-Korean dialogue, the official said.

   After wrapping up the series of bilateral and trilateral meetings, the ministers had dinner together, hosted by the Japanese minister.

   This week's talks had originally been scheduled for two days, including some friendship events on Sunday. But the additional events have been called off because of the disaster.

   The three countries have held a foreign ministers' meeting every year since 2007. (Yonhap News)

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