North Korea wants to ease a standoff with the United States, Japan and South Korea, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao told East Asian neighbours at a summit focused on Pyongyang's nuclear weapons and on regional integration.
At the meeting on Saturday, China, Japan and South Korea vowed to seek an early restart to six-party talks aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear weapons ambitions, and to push an ambitious idea to eventually create an "East Asian community", promoted by Japan's new prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama.
Wen, who was in North Korea last Sunday to Tuesday, said Pyongyang wanted to ease strains, following sanctions and months of contention sparked by its second ever nuclear test in May.
"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 after the meeting in Beijing with Hatoyama and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak.
Wen said the chance to revive six-party nuclear disarmament talks including Pyongyang would not last.
"If we miss this opportunity, then we may have to make even more efforts further down the road," he said.
The three East Asian leaders also vowed to work together for closer regional economic integration, aiming eventually for a bloc something like the European Union.
"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 the leaders issued at the meeting's end.
Their vows to cooperate on North Korea and 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.
The joint show of unity may also increase pressure on North Korea to restart nuclear negotiations.
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 between the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States were defunct. It walked away from the talks last December.
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. "We also support enhanced contacts between North Korea and both Japan and South Korea."
Washington has said it is open to talks with Pyongyang as long as that leads to a resumption of the six-party negotiations.
A senior North Korean nuclear envoy, Ri Gun, plans to visit the United States later this month, opening the way to possible two-way talks, a South Korean broadcaster said on Friday.
After Wen spoke, South Korean President Lee and Japan's Hatoyama also said they were open to engaging North Korea, but both sounded a cautious note and stressed that any two-way talks had to be just a warm-up for the six-party negotiations.
The three also highlighted hopes for deeper regional economic cooperation. They will oppose trade protectionism, and seek progress in the Doha round of trade talks, they said.
South Korea's Lee proposed a permanent office to examine better cooperation among the three, an idea Hatoyama endorsed.
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 took office on Sept. 16 after his Democratic Party trounced the long-dominant Liberal Democratic Party, and had said he wanted better relations with Beijing.
Those ties have long been strained by distrust over history, sea boundary disputes and worries over China's growing military and political clout.