South Korea accepts North Korea's proposal for talks

South Korea conducted a 94-minute artillery drill on Yeonpyeong Island, but North Korea said it would not retaliate despite its earlier threats of war.
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, January 20, 2011; 9:47 AM

TOKYO - South Korea on Thursday accepted North Korea's proposal for high-level military talks, Seoul's Defense Ministry said, setting up the neighbors' first significant bilateral dialogue since November's artillery strike against a South Korean island.

North Korea had issued its latest appeal for tension-easing talks earlier in the day, sending a telegram to South Korea's defense minister, Kim Kwan-jin. Seoul's acceptance stands in contrast to several earlier rejections of North Korean overtures and comes after prodding from Washington and Beijing for the resumption of inter-peninsular dialogue.

Just a day earlier, with Chinese President Hu Jintao in Washington for a summit with President Obama, a U.S.-China joint statement emphasized the importance of an improvement in North-South relations, describing "sincere and constructive inter-Korean dialogue" as "an essential step."

Following a year in which North Korea allegedly torpedoed a South Korean warship and shelled Yeonpyeong Island - aggressions that killed a total of 50 South Koreans - the conservative government in Seoul denounced the North's subsequent calls for "peace" as insincere.

Even Thursday's decision to accept the proposal for talks included some caveats. Because North Korea's telegram on Thursday gave no mention of denuclearization, South Korea will also request bilateral government talks aimed at Pyongyang's disarmament, a government statement said.

An unnamed official at the Ministry of Unification in Seoul told South Korea's Yonhap news agency that those denuclearization talks will "sound out the North's real intention on the issue."

In the yet-unscheduled military talks, Seoul is likely to push North Korea to accept responsibility for its recent aggressions - particularly involving the Cheonan warship. North Korea vehemently denies that it torpedoed the ship.

The North and South last held military talks in late September, when three officers from each side met at the border village of Panmunjom. But the talks accomplished nothing, as the South pushed the North to apologize for the Cheonan attack and the North refused.

Improved North-South relations could create a more favorable mood for the stalled six-party talks, the diplomatic process designed to persuade North Korea to dismantle its nuclear weapons program.

The on-and-off talks have done little to accomplish their goal, and top U.S. officials doubt that North Korea will soon denuclearize. Still, the Obama administration seeks a way to curb Pyongyang's aggressions - and considers dialogue the best immediate option.

The U.S.-China joint statement called for the "early resumption" of six-party talks. The talks also involve China, Russia and Japan.

"North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile program is increasingly a direct threat to the security of the United States and our allies," Obama said Wednesday. "We agreed that the paramount goal must be complete denuclearization of the peninsula."

North Korea this month has made relentless proposals to Seoul for dialogue, with requests to discuss everything from economic cooperation to cross-border tourism. Last weekend, its state newspaper, the Rodong Sinmum, carried an editorial that said, "Dialogue and negotiations are the only just way for independently solving the issue of the country's reunification by the concerted efforts of the Koreans."

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