China, Japan and South Korea are considering how to respond to North Korea's recent conciliatory gestures as they hold annual talks Monday among their foreign ministers in Shanghai.
The talks in China's commercial capital are to set the agenda for an Oct. 10 summit in Beijing and will largely focus on the North Korean nuclear issue and on expanding regional cooperation, officials said.
North Korea recently has toned down its angry rhetoric and appeared more willing to rejoin stalled disarmament talks, after months of threatening nuclear war and conducting nuclear and missile tests.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak has urged a strong stance against Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions. China has usually sought to play a conciliatory role as the host of six-nation talks devoted to ending the North's nuclear arms program. Pyongyang has boycotted the talks since late last year.
Monday's two-hour meeting also serves as a testing ground for Tokyo's future diplomacy with regional partners under the newly sworn-in administration under Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, whose Democratic Party of Japan won by a landslide in elections last month that ended more than a half-century of almost uninterrupted rule by the Liberal Democratic Party.
Japan's relations with its two closest neighbors have been dogged by resentment over Tokyo's invasion and occupation of the region before and during World War II. Maritime territorial disputes and concerns over China's growing economic and military power have also hindered cooperation.
Ties have improved, however, since former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi left office in 2006. Koizumi's visits to Yasukuni Shrine, which honors fallen soldiers, including convicted war criminals, had enraged Beijing.
Unlike his conservative predecessors, who sought to strengthen Tokyo's alliance with the U.S., Hatoyama has emphasized his determination to forge a better relationship with Japan's neighbors.
He has pledged not to visit Yasukuni Shrine, and has proposed an "East Asian Community" akin to the European Union.
Apart from close economic ties, the three countries share common concerns in handling North Korea.
Pyongyang views its nuclear program as a security guarantee against what it claims are U.S. plans to attack North Korea. However, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has reportedly expressed interest in further talks, suggesting the regime might rejoin the stalled nuclear negotiations. Pyongyang pulled out of the talks to protest criticism of its rocket launch earlier this year.
To revive the nuclear negotiations, Lee, the South Korean president, is proposing what he calls a "grand bargain" that would offer the North economic and political incentives, including a security guarantee, in exchange for it irreversibly dismantling its nuclear weapons program.
Washington says it is considering direct talks with the North if that would bring Pyongyang back to the six-nation nuclear disarmament talks. Earlier, it said the North must return to the talks before it would agree to Pyongyang's demands for one-on-one contacts.
The gathering Monday includes newly appointed Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada, South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan and China's top diplomat, Yang Jiechi. They are the third since the ministerial talks were launched in 2007.
Together, China, Japan and South Korea account for about 17 percent of global GDP and 18 percent of global trade. The countries have outlined more than a dozen areas for deepening cooperation, including disaster prevention, trade and investment and the environment.