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Lee reminds Gates of urgency for denuclearizing N. Korea
By Lee Chi-dong
SEOUL, Jan. 14 (Yonhap) -- South Korean President Lee Myung-bak told U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on Friday that the allies need to step up joint efforts this year to rein in North Korea's nuclear weapons drive and military brinkmanship.

   In their meeting that lasted nearly an hour at the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae, Lee said the North is expected to declare itself a "great, powerful and prosperous" nation in April 2012, the centenary of the birth of the country's founder Kim Il-sung. North Korea watchers say Pyongyang is apparently racing to maximize its military arsenal by the deadline, and it would become more difficult to denuclearize the communist nation through diplomacy after the symbolic assertion.

   "As this year is an important time in resolving inter-Korean issues, I hope South Korea and the U.S. will cooperate and do their best to settle the North Korea issue," the president was quoted as telling Gates by Cheong Wa Dae spokeswoman Kim Hee-jung.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak (R) talks with U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates at Cheong Wa Dae in Seoul on Jan. 14. (Yonhap)

Lee said the communist neighbor is believed to have steadily developed its nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missile, the spokeswoman added.

   The North revealed its new uranium enrichment facility to an American scientist in November of last year, about two weeks before its deadly artillery attack on the South's western border island of Yeonpyeong.

   Lee thanked the U.S. defense chief for Washington's support for Seoul in dealing with the latest attack by the North, especially the dispatch of the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS George Washington to a joint naval exercise, according to the spokeswoman.

   The secretary, who came to Seoul after visiting China and Japan, briefed Lee on the results of his trips there, the spokeswoman said.

   "In general, (Gates) said there were talks on ways for close cooperation and coordination with relevant nations for resolving the North Korean nuclear issue and for peace and stability in Northeast Asia," Kim said in a press briefing. She did not elaborate, citing diplomatic custom.

   Earlier in the day, Gates had talks with his South Korean counterpart, Kim Kwan-jin.

   At the start of their meeting, which was open to the media, Gates left room for diplomacy on North Korea but stressed that Pyongyang should first take a sincere attitude.

   "With regard to the next steps on North Korea, diplomatic engagement is possible, starting with direct engagement between the DPRK and the South," Gates told Kim. DPRK stands for Democratic People's Republic of Korea, the North's official name. "When or if North Korea's action shows a cause to believe that negotiations can be productive and conducted in good faith, then we could see a return" to multilateral denuclearization talks, he said.