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South Korea and China agree to expand cooperation on North Korea’s disarmament

The leaders of South Korea and China agreed Monday to expand cooperation in political, economic and other fields - including North Korea's nuclear disarmament - as the two Asian neighbors push for a new strategic partnership.

"We agreed to make joint efforts to ensure the six-party talks process enters a new phase," Chinese President Hu Jintao said, referring to international talks led by China aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear programs.

Hu, speaking at a press conference with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak after their summit, also called for the "full implementation" of the second phase of the denuclearization process that calls for the disablement and declaration of the North's nuclear facilities.

China, North Korea's key ally and main aid donor, has chaired numerous rounds of disarmament talks since 2003 on Pyongyang's weapons programs. The talks - which also involve the United States, the two Koreas, Russia and Japan - have produced a landmark aid-for-disarmament deal.

In June, North Korea demolished its nuclear reactor's cooling tower and submitted its long-delayed nuclear declaration under the deal. The North, however, remains at odds with the U.S. over how to verify the declared nuclear programs.

Pyongyang has accused Washington of delaying its removal from a U.S. terrorism blacklist. Washington has said it will drop North Korea from the list only after it agrees to a full nuclear verification plan.

North Korean state media carried a series of dispatches criticizing the U.S. last week and blasting U.S.-South Korean computer-simulated war games. The North's Foreign Ministry said Pyongyang would bolster its "war deterrent" - a euphemism for its nuclear programs - amid "military threats" posed by the United States.

Hu and Lee also agreed on frequent visits by senior officials and for the countries to hold their first high-level strategy talks among diplomats within this year, according to a joint statement released after the summit by South Korea.

Hu arrived earlier for the two-day state visit, flush with his country's success in hosting its first Olympic Games, which concluded Sunday. Monday's summit was the third since May, when Lee visited Beijing and pledged with Hu to enter a "strategic cooperative partnership." They also met in Beijing during the Olympics.

Earlier, about 40 protesters in downtown Seoul held up a sign reading "Grant refugee status to North Koreans." China does not recognize North Koreans who enter the country as refugees, rather viewing them as economic migrants.

China and North Korea have a treaty that calls for the repatriation of North Koreans caught crossing their shared border without permission. Human rights advocates in South Korea say North Koreans face persecution if they are sent back.

Hu and Lee also agreed to step up visits by senior defense and military officials between the two sides, and to boost cooperation in environmental protection, energy and finance.

The two leaders signed several memorandums of understanding on issues such as cooperation in saving energy, high-tech fields as well as trade, according to Lee's office.

China is South Korea's largest trading partner, with two-way trade volume reaching US$145 billion last year. Lee and Hu said they want to boost that figure to US$200 billion by 2010.

The two leaders congratulated each other on their countries' respective Olympic achievements. China won 51 gold medals, the most of any nation competing. South Korea racked up its best ever performance, taking home 13 golds, including its first in baseball.

Hu also expressed gratitude to Lee for South Korea's relief aid worth US$5 million to help victims of the devastating earthquake that struck China's Sichuan province in May, which killed 69,107 and left more than 18,200 missing.

The official China Daily newspaper reported that Hu was scheduled to travel to Tajikistan on Tuesday to attend the summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a security forum that includes China, Russia and Central Asian nations.

He was set to travel to Turkmenistan on the last leg on his three-nation tour, the paper said.