North Korea proposes military talks with South

Thursday, May 13, 2004

SEOUL, South Korea -- North Korea on Wednesday proposed holding high-level military talks with South Korea on May 26 aimed at reducing tension centered on the international standoff over the communist state's nuclear weapons development. In a telephone message, the North suggested that officials meet on the border Friday to work out the proposed high-level talks, the South's Defense Ministry said. The North proposed holding the high-level talks May 26 at its east coast Diamond Mountain resort, it said. The South did not have an immediate response, but it has repeatedly urged the North for such high-level military talks.

Seoul had hoped to hold the talks this month to discuss ways of avoiding naval skirmishes along the poorly marked western sea border as fishing boats jostle for position during crab-catching season in May and June.

North Korean fishing boats have occasionally crossed into waters controlled by South Korea during crab season.

North and South Korea fought deadly naval gunbattles in the western sea in 1999 and 2002. South Korea said several sailors were wounded, and that up to 30 North Koreans died in the 1999 clash. In 2002, one South Korean warship sank, killing six of its sailors. The North said it suffered casualties, but didn't confirm how many.

South Korea recognizes a sea border demarcated by the United Nations after the end of the 1950-53 Korean War. North Korea has never recognized it and claims a boundary farther south. The two Koreas often claim intrusions by the other side's naval ships and fishing boats.

Also Wednesday, a South Korean report said Pyongyang demanded aid in exchange for freezing its nuclear weapons program as it began low-level talks with the United States and four other nations.

The Yonhap News Agency, citing unidentified diplomatic sources, reported that North Korean envoys said the success of the low-level talks would depend on whether the United States. Also taking part are China, South Korea, Russia and Japan.

The "working group" talks are meant to help produce an agenda for a third round of high-level talks on the North's nuclear ambitions, which host Beijing hopes takes place before July.

Even as envoys from the six nations sat down to talk, the North Korean government unleashed more vitriol from Pyongyang, with the newspaper Rodong Sinmun accusing the United States of using the nuclear issue as a pretext for war.

"It is a false propaganda to claim that the U.S. is a 'friendly country'," said the commentary, carried on North Korea's official KCNA news agency.

Whether the rhetoric -- typical for the isolated North -- would set the tone for the negotiations was unclear. Host China has said North Korean leader Kim Jong Il expressed his commitment to the talks and to a "nuclear weapon-free goal" when he visited Beijing last month.

On Wednesday, "North Korea renewed its reward-for-freeze demand and warned that the success of the talks will depend on whether the United States accepts its demand or not," Yonhap said.

The United States and its allies say they are willing to provide aid if North Korea freezes its nuclear facilities and commits itself to dismantling them. Washington says such a freeze must be a temporary step toward permanent dismantling.

North Korea has balked at making such a commitment, and insists on aid and a freeze taking place simultaneously.

There was no immediate comment from the U.S. delegation.

The dispute erupted in October 2002 when the United States said North Korea's isolated Stalinist regime admitted operating a secret nuclear program in violation of a 1994 agreement.

Going into the latest meeting, North Korea promised "patience and magnanimity" but warned of unspecified "very serious consequences" if Washington presses its demand to dismantle the program without discussing aid.

The State Department says its envoy, Joseph DeTrani, might hold a rare one-on-one meeting with North Korea's delegate during the talks at a Chinese government guesthouse.

No date has been set for the end of the meeting but U.S. officials say they expect it to last several days.

In Seoul, South Korea's foreign minister said the talks will focus on two issues: making the Korean Peninsula nuclear weapons-free and taking "corresponding measures" for a North Korean freeze.

"We hope that the countries involved in the talks will avoid confrontational attitudes and get down to deep and concrete talks on the key issues," said Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon.

The North, however, took a tough stance on the eve of the Beijing talks.

"The 'reward for freeze' should be taken up as a major agenda item at the working group meeting," Pyongyang said in a statement carried by its state news agency.

"If the U.S. turns aside this and takes the meeting as an opportunity to insist on" a complete dismantling, "that will entail very serious consequences," the statement said.

Though it gave no details, the North says it is pushing ahead with developing a "nuclear deterrent" needed to avert what it says is the possibility of a U.S. invasion.

North and South Korea are technically still at war since the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended without a peace treaty.

Their two militaries, still facing off across the world's most heavily fortified border, seldom hold talks, although their governments have expanded economic and political exchanges in recent years.

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