SKorea: North proposes military talks

September 26, 2008 10:30:59 AM PDT
North Korea has proposed holding military talks with South Korea in what would be the first official contact between the countries since Seoul's new conservative government took office in February, a defense official said Friday.The overture comes amid heightened tensions over North Korea's decision to abandon a disarmament-for-aid pact and to begin reassembling its nuclear reprocessing plant in Yongbyon. Earlier this week, North Korea ordered U.N. nuclear monitors to leave the country and said it would reinsert nuclear material into a plutonium-producing facility within a week, sparking alarm among its neighbors.

The North sent a message Thursday proposing the talks, and the South Korean government is discussing whether to accept the offer, an official at South Korea's Defense Ministry said late Friday. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.

The message was Pyongyang's first official proposal for talks since South Korean President Lee Myung-bak's administration took office in February with a pledge to get tougher on the North. The North responded by suspending all government-level talks with the South.

Though the proposal was encouraging, South Korea's foreign minister warned Friday the North's moves toward restarting its nuclear plant could erase years of progress.

"We are faced with a difficult situation where this (negotiation) is not moving forward and may go back to square one," Yu Myung-hwan said earlier Friday.

Ties between the two Koreas, which technically remain at war because the 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty, have been steadily declining in recent months.

In July, a North Korean army guard fatally shot a South Korean tourist vacationing at a northern mountain resort. The North has said the tourist was shot because she entered a restricted military area and ignored warnings to stop.

In response, Seoul suspended tours to the resort and demanded that North Korea allow investigators into the area. North Korea has refused.

Tensions rose further in August, when the North stopped disabling the Yongbyon nuclear processing plant in protest of Washington's refusal to remove it from a list of countries that sponsor terrorism.

North Korea had agreed last year to begin disabling its nuclear system in exchange for energy aid and other concessions. But a North Korean diplomat confirmed last Friday that the regime stopped that process and is working toward restarting the plant.

The diplomat cited Washington's insistence that North Korea accept an international plan to verify its accounting of its nuclear programs if it wants to be taken off the terror list. North Korea rejects the demand, saying it was never part of the original disarmament pact.

He said it's possible North Korea is reversing disarmament until the U.S. elects a new president in early November. But he warned the North not to expect a better nuclear deal with either Barack Obama or John McCain.

The standoff comes amid reports that North Korea's autocratic leader, Kim Jong Il, suffered a stroke last month. Kim, 66, has not been seen in public in weeks, raising concerns about who will lead the Stalinist nation if he dies without naming a successor.

President Lee, meanwhile, called for a stronger military as his country's armed forces carried out a large-scale firepower demonstration as he looked on Friday.

"We should become a strong military because we must unconditionally defeat any provocation," Lee said at an army training site north of Seoul.

The military demonstration - involving 2,000 troops, sophisticated fighter jets and tanks - was the largest of its kind in South Korea. U.S. Apache attack helicopters also took part in the event, according to the South Korean Defense Ministry.

The South Korean defense official said he did not know whether the North proposed any specific topics for the talks. South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported that the North wants to discuss how to implement military agreements hashed out between the two nations by previous liberal South Korean governments.

The North suggested holding the talks next Tuesday, but the South wants to push the date back by several days, Yonhap reported.

The defense official said late Friday that he could not confirm the report.


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