APEC leaders push global free trade; North Korea crisis unresolved

HANOI, Nov 18, 2006 (AFP) – Asia-Pacific leaders on Saturday put their political muscle behind the drive to free up global trade, but they struggled to find common ground on how best to tackle the North Korea nuclear crisis. The quest for consensus over the response to Pyongyang’s shock atom bomb test last month dominated both official debate on the first day of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit and a flurry of sideline diplomacy.

Leaders from the United States, China, Japan, Russia and South Korea — the five nations involved in talks with the North on ending its nuclear program — shuttled to and fro around Hanoi, conferring on their next move.

US President George W. Bush held a rare trilateral meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Roh Moo-Hyun, while Russian President Vladimir Putin huddled with China’s Hu Jintao.

The 21 APEC members were to issue a statement Sunday against North Korea for its October 9 nuclear test, the White House said, but China and Russia — Pyongyang’s closest allies — urged a more measured approach to the standoff.

Efforts to break down barriers to free trade more easily won support from APEC leaders, who called for an immedi