Tuesday, January 25, 2011

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) -- South Korea on Wednesday proposed a date to North Korea for the rivals' first official contact since the North's deadly shelling of a South Korean island late last year.

The proposal for a preliminary meeting in two weeks on resuming high-level military talks came as a senior U.S. diplomat visited Seoul to show solidarity with a close U.S. ally and to talk about ways to deal with North Korea.

The North has made a recent push for talks to ease hostility on the peninsula after weeks of threatening war. The South, which responded to the North's Nov. 23 artillery attack with military drills and threats of its own, has agreed to talks but remains wary of North Korean intentions.

The Koreas will have to put aside their differences for any talks to lead to a new round of international negotiations on the long-sought U.S. goal of ending North Korea's nuclear programs.

South Korea's defense minister sent a message to his North Korean counterpart proposing a Feb. 11 meeting at the border village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone dividing the peninsula, the Defense Ministry said.

Also Wednesday, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg held talks with Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan, telling reporters afterward that the allies' ties were as close as "sticky rice cake."

Steinberg called on the North to demonstrate that it's sincerely prepared to step back from violence and to engage in meaningful dialogue on its nuclear programs.

The strong cooperation between Washington and Seoul "has sent a strong message to North Korea that they're not going to achieve their objectives through intimidation, through coercion, and that, on the contrary, all they will do is deepen their isolation."

The North's artillery attack on South Korea's Yeonpyeong Island near their disputed sea border killed two marines and two civilians and fueled animosity between the rivals that was already rising because of the March sinking of the South Korean naval ship Cheonan.

A South Korean-led international investigation blamed a North Korean torpedo for the sinking, which killed 46 sailors; Pyongyang denies involvement.

Next month's preliminary meeting is meant to prepare for high-level defense talks, Unification Ministry spokesman Chun Hae-sung said in a statement. Chun said the agenda for the high-level talks must include North Korean assurances that it will take "responsible measures" over the Cheonan and the artillery attack and not provoke further conflict.

In a letter to South Korea's defense minister last week, North Korea's defense chief proposed the high-level defense talks in early February to ease tensions and "express opinions" about last year's two incidents, the North's official Korean Central News Agency reported.

The two countries' defense chiefs last met in Pyongyang in November 2007, a month after the second summit between the leaders of their countries.

Chun renewed Seoul's demand that Pyongyang accept separate talks with Seoul to verify its commitment to abandoning its nuclear programs.

North Korea has expressed a desire to restart the nuclear talks it quit in early 2009. But Seoul, Washington and Tokyo have pressed the North to prove it is serious about giving up its atomic ambitions before they will allow a new round of aid-for-disarmament talks that also involve China and Russia.

"We stand with our ally South Korea and insist that North Korea keeps its commitment to abandon nuclear weapons," President Barack Obama said in his State of the Union address.

Steinberg also stressed the need for the international community to send a strong message that North Korea's uranium enrichment program is inconsistent with U.N. Security Council resolutions and with its own past nuclear disarmament commitments.

The North's uranium enrichment facility, which it revealed in November, could give it a second way to make atomic bombs. The North said 2,000 recently completed centrifuges were producing low-enriched uranium meant for a new reactor.


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