Seogwipo, S Korea: South Korea and Japan vowed on Saturday to stand united against North Korea in a showdown over a sunken ship, raising pressure on China which has been reluctant to join other countries in condemning Pyongyang.
Leaders of the three big northeast Asian powers are meeting in Seogwipo, a honeymoon resort on the South Korean island of Jeju, for a summit that was meant to boost plans for greater regional cooperation and economic integration.
Instead, the standoff between North and South Korea has overshadowed the summit. The two sides of the divided, heavily armed peninsula have been engaged in an escalating confrontation since Seoul concluded that North Korea was behind the sinking of a South Korean warship in late March that killed 46 sailors.
In talks over two days, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao are likely to focus on the dispute, which has opened a breach between China and its neighbors, both of whom back firm international action against Pyongyang.
At Hatoyama`s suggestion, the three leaders observed a moment of silence for the dead sailors before starting their talks.
"North Korea`s provocative actions are unforgivable," Hatoyama was quoted by a senior Japanese government official as telling Lee ahead of the three-way summit. "Japan, along with the international community, is condemning such moves and strongly backs South Korea."
The mounting antagonism between the two Koreas has unnerved investors, worried the confrontation could erupt into conflict in a region that is home to the world`s second and third biggest economies -- Japan and China.
Many analysts say neither side is ready to go to war but believe there could be more skirmishes, especially along their disputed sea border off the west coast.
China counts neighboring North Korea as a friend and a buffer against the other, U.S.-allied neighbors. It has steered clear of condemning Pyongyang, saying it needs to consider the evidence and urging restraint on all sides.
Wen held to that position in a meeting with Lee on Friday, but he also said Beijing would protect nobody who was found to be responsible for the sinking. In his opening remarks to the three-nation summit, Wen did not mention the sunk warship Cheonan and struck an upbeat tone.
"I look forward to working with President Lee and Prime Minister Hatoyama to achieve solid results (at the meeting) and send a message to the world of confidence and hope in peace, stability and development (in the region)," said Wen.
Beijing`s reticence makes for tricky diplomacy for Seoul, which will need China`s support to secure a U.N. Security Council statement or resolution condemning North Korea for the sinking. As a permanent member of the Security Council, China could veto such a move.
The leaders of South Korea and Japan made a show of unity on the issue Saturday, with Hatoyama promising in talks with Lee to take a leading role in international coordination of the Cheonan reaction and vowing to back Seoul at the U.N., according to South Korean presidential aide Lee Dong-kwan.
Hatoyama later told reporters: "We believe what North Korea did is an objective fact."
The leaders pledged to boost cooperation among the three countries that account for $438 billion in combined trade in areas of climate change, the pursuit of economic union, and food safety, but left for a second session on Monday detailed discussions on regional security including North Korea.
North Korea state media said on Saturday that the United States was blaming it for the sinking in order to put China in an awkward position and keep a hold on Japan and South Korea.
North Korea has said it will rip up military agreements with the South guaranteeing the safety of cross-border exchanges and has reportedly put its military on combat readiness after Seoul said it would ban trade with the North and stop its commercial ships using South Korean waters.