Beijing to work with both Koreas, Chinese President says

China's President Hu Jintao, the first Chinese leader to visit South Korea in a decade, on Thursday reaffirmed Beijing's commitment to denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula and said Beijing will work with both Koreas to foster peace. "We firmly support whatever is conducive to safeguarding peace and stability on the peninsula," Hu said in a speech to South Korea's National Assembly.

"As proven by facts, the peaceful resolution to the peninsula's nuclear issue through dialogue is the most realistic and reasonable method," he said. China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States have sought since 2003 to convince North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons ambitions.

In September, the North agreed to abandon its nuclear program in return for security guarantees and energy aid. But it cast doubt on the breakthrough the next day by insisting it receive a nuclear reactor, for generating power, before it disarms.

"We will support the improvement of ties between the North and South through dialogue and confidence-building, with the eventual goal of achieving peaceful reunification," Hu said.

His comments drew frequent applause from South Korean lawmakers, and he received a standing ovation after his 30-minute speech. Hu expressed great satisfaction with China's flourishing ties with South Korea, saying the relationship "has entered the best-ever era." The two countries, which fought each other during the 1950-53 Korean War, forged diplomatic ties in 1992. Relations have since made great strides, with China overtaking the U.S. as South Korea's biggest trade partner.

This year's trade volume is expected to top US$100 billion (Ђ85.64 billion), three years earlier than targeted. Hu and South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun agreed at talks Wednesday to double the amount by 2012.

Hu said China-South Korea ties should be a "model" showing that countries with different systems can peacefully coexist.

"The world is rich and diverse," he said. "As proven by the two countries' development of relations, countries with different social systems can perfectly coexist ... if they understand and respect each other, and facilitate mutual confidence and deal properly with differences in opinions."

Hu's comments seemed a marked contrast to U.S. President George W. Bush's remarks Wednesday, when he urged communist China to enact more social reforms and to emulate rival Taiwan's democratic system.

"We encourage China to continue down the road of reform and openness," Bush told an audience that stayed silent until its polite applause at the end. "By meeting the legitimate demands of its citizens for freedom and openness, China's leaders can help their country grow into a modern, prosperous and confident nation."

Hu didn't mention his country's confirmation a day earlier of its first human cases of bird flu.

After his two-day stay in Seoul, Hu was set to fly Thursday to South Korea's second-largest city, Busan, for a summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum on Friday and Saturday. Bird flu was expected to be high on the agenda.

China reported its first human infections, including one fatality, on the mainland on Wednesday. Health workers were rushing to inoculate billions of chickens, reports the AP. I.L.

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