Two Koreas to meet, nuclear talks on agenda
Senior officials from South and North Korea will meet early next week, a gathering Seoul's Unification Ministry said it would use to press Pyongyang to return to stalled six-party nuclear talks.
Rhee Bong-jo, Vice Unification Minister, told reporters talks on the North's request for supplies of fertilizer would be held in North Korea's city of Kaesong on May 16-17.
Earlier in the day, Kwon Ho-ung -- who heads the North's delegation to the inter-Korean ministerial talks -- proposed the meeting in a telegram to Seoul's Unification Minister Chung Dong-young, the North's official mouthpiece KCNA said.
"We will also deliver our stand on North Korea's nuclear program as well as concerns of the international community. I believe this bilateral talks could foster a positive mood for the nuclear talks," Rhee said.
North Korea requested 500,000 tonnes of fertilizer from the South earlier this year, but Seoul has put off a decision on whether to grant the assistance.
The request for larger-than-usual fertilizer aid indicates the impoverished North is anticipating greater trouble feeding its 23 million people, analysts have said.
Low-profile officials from both sides last met in Kaesong in late April for talks on helping the reclusive state combat a bird flu outbreak.
But dialogue between high-ranking officials has stalled since July last year, when Pyongyang was angered by a secret airlift of more than 460 North Korean refugees from Vietnam.
Political and commercial ties between the two Koreas, which are technically at war under a truce that ended the 1950-53 Korean war, had been warming.
STALLED NUCLEAR TALKS
The two Koreas, the United States, Japan, China and Russia met for three rounds of nuclear talks up to June 2004 with no substantive progress. A fourth round was originally set for last September, but has yet to take place.
Last weekend, North Korea hinted it might be willing to return to the six-party talks if Washington could confirm at a bilateral meeting its recent comments recognizing the North as a sovereign state and promising two-way discussions if the multilateral negotiations reconvene.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice subsequently confirmed those commitments, but also criticized the North and said Washington had sufficient forces in the Pacific region to deter the communist state.
North Korea then announced on Wednesday that it had removed fuel rods from its Yongbyon nuclear reactor, a potential precursor to building more weapons or testing one.
"Rice's reckless remarks self-exposed that her loudmouthed recognition of the sovereign state and the like were nothing but a ruse to conceal the U.S. attempt at bringing down the regime of the DPRK and mislead the public opinion," the North's foreign ministry spokesman said in comments reported by the official KCNA news agency.
DPRK is short for the North's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
The unnamed spokesman said the United States had scuppered a previous nuclear deal, known as the Agreed Framework, by failing to fulfil its obligations under the pact.
"All the remarks of Rice prove that she is either a woman ignorant of the DPRK-U.S. history or a brazenfaced liar," the spokesman said. "We cannot but be confused by such incoherent remarks made by the secretary of state of the superpower. Call a spade a spade."
Meanwhile, Japan's Asahi Shimbun newspaper said a senior State Department official held telephone talks with Han Song-ryol, North Korea's deputy ambassador to the United Nations, following Wednesday's announcement.
It quoted unnamed sources including U.S. government officials in Washington, and said it was the first contact between the United States and North Korea since early December. No details of the talks were available, the daily said.