North Koreans call for military talks with South
Would be first official contact since February
SEOUL - 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 yesterday.
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 UN 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 yesterday. 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 President Lee Myung-bak of South Korea 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, Yu Myung-hwan, warned yesterday that 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 said.
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 to protest against 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 week that the regime had 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.
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 yesterday.
"We should become a strong military because we must unconditionally defeat any provocation," Lee said at an army training site north of Seoul.
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.