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By Yoko Nishikawa
BEIJING (Reuters) - North Korea wants better ties with the United States, Japan and South Korea, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao told East Asian neighbours at a summit that focussed on Pyongyang's nuclear weapons and regional economic integration.
At the meeting on Saturday, China, Japan and South Korea also vowed to seek an early restart to six-party talks aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear weapons ambitions.
Wen, who was in North Korea this week, said Pyongyang wanted to ease strains.
"North Korea does not only hope to improve relations with the United States, it also hopes to do so with South Korea and Japan," Wen told a news conference on Saturday after the meeting with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and new Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama.
"This is the deepest impression I got from my visit."
Wen said the chance to make progress in the dispute over Pyongyang's nuclear weapons plans would not last.
"If we miss this opportunity, then we may have to make even more efforts further down the road," he said.
At the summit, the three leaders also vowed to work together for regional economic integration.
"The three countries remain committed to the development of an East Asian community based on the principles of openness, transparency and inclusiveness as a long term goal," said a joint statement issued by the leaders at the end of their meeting in the Chinese capital.
The vows to cooperate on North Korea and on economic growth are unlikely to make any immediate difference. But they underscored the growing pull for the three Asian powers to set aside some of their friction and rivalry as they struggle to surmount the global economic slump.
Wen said the three nations would "join hands to address the international financial crisis, climate change and other global challenges."
The combined GDP of Japan, China and South Korea accounts for 16 percent of the world's total output, with Japan and China respectively the world's second- and third-biggest economies.
In April, a month before its second nuclear test, North Korea said the six-party talks -- among the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States -- were defunct. It walked away from those talks last December.
HEAVILY HEDGED
This week, North Korea's top leader Kim Jong-il offered visiting Chinese Premier Wen a heavily hedged statement that his government could return to multilateral negotiations, possibly the six-party talks, provided it first saw satisfactory progress in any two-way talks with the United States.
"We support the United States and North Korea holding conscientious and constructive dialogue," Wen said on Saturday.
Washington has said it is open to talks with Pyongyang as long as that leads to a resumption of the six-party talks.
After Wen spoke, South Korean President Lee said he was open to Seoul having its own talks with North Korea.
"I welcome the idea. But the final purpose of any talks between South and North Korea should be denuclearisation of North Korea," he said
Wen, Lee and Japan's Hatoyama also sought to highlight hopes for deeper economic cooperation.
They will step up efforts to improve the quality of economic development, oppose trade protectionism, and seek progress in the Doha round of trade liberalisation talks, they said.
China is now Japan's biggest trading partner, and the second largest export destination after the United States. South Korea, meanwhile, was Japan's third-biggest export market in 2008.
Hatoyama has been seeking deeper ties with Asian partners and has promoted the idea of a regional grouping inspired by the example of the European Union. The joint statement stressed that an "East Asia community" was a "long-term goal."
Hatoyama took office on September 16 after his Democratic Party trounced the long-dominant Liberal Democratic Party, and had said he wanted better relations with Beijing.
Ties have long been strained by distrust over history, sea boundary disputes and worries over China's growing military and political clout.
(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard and Chris Buckley; Writing by Chris Buckley; Editing by Jerry Norton)

Reuters