North, South Korea hold official talks

Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 8, 2011; 10:41 PM

NIYODOGAWA, JAPAN - North and South Korea on Tuesday held their first official dialogue since the North's shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in November, but the colonels meeting at the demilitarized zone could not resolve several fundamental differences between the neighbors in the eight-hour talks. The meeting ended merely with an agreement to resume discussions Wednesday.

Seoul is pressing Pyongyang to apologize for a March attack on the Cheonan warship, a provocation that, coupled with the Yeonpyeong shelling, nearly drove the peninsula to war. North Korea has steadfastly denied involvement in the Cheonan's torpedoing, despite a multinational investigation claiming otherwise.

South Korea, following a year in which it lost 50 citizens in the two attacks, also wants North Korea to promise peaceful behavior - a starting point, the conservative government in Seoul says, for broader dialogue and the resumption of possible economic aid.

The current military talks are designed to set the stage for eventual discussions between the countries' defense ministers. Such high-level meetings haven't taken place in more than three years.

North and South Korea have recently faced calls from both China and the United States to improve relations, potentially opening the path for a new round of the six-nation talks designed to curb Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions. North Korea, enduring one of its coldest winters on record, could parlay concessions on its weapons program into much-needed food aid.

On Tuesday, North Korea also asked for the early repatriation of 31 citizens whose boat last weekend entered South Korean territory, where it was detained by Seoul's navy. According to various reports, the South Korean government believes that the 11 men and 20 women aboard had no intention to defect, and that their boat likely drifted off course. The 31 North Koreans are still being questioned, though.

Following Tuesday's meeting, South Korean experts were quick to point out that the talks could still lead to improved relations, especially given the calls in Washington and Beijing for civility.

"I think they will agree to set a date for higher-level military talk" Wednesday, said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the Seoul-based University of North Korean Studies.

One week ago, South Korea President Lee Myung-bak suggested that he could envision holding a summit with Kim Jong Il - provided the North pledges a change in attitude. Such a remark caught attention in Seoul, particularly given the Lee administration's hard-line stance toward the North. The neighbors have twice held such summits, most recently in 2007, but that was the era of the "Sunshine Policy," when South Korea's leaders sought to influence North Korea by showering it with aid and joint economic projects.

Special correspondent Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report.

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