The two Koreas will hold high-level talks later this month, officials said Thursday, in the first concrete sign of easing tensions on the divided peninsula after the North signed a breakthrough nuclear disarmament agreement.
North Korea’s top envoy to six-nation talks on his country’s nuclear program also said Pyongyang is ready to implement the disarmament agreement, which was reached earlier this week, Japan’s Kyodo News agency said.
“The talks went well,” the news agency quoted North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan as saying at Pyongyang’s airport on his return from the Beijing session.
“We are ready to implement the results of the meeting,” he told both Russia’s ambassador to Pyongyang and a senior Chinese Embassy official, according to Kyodo.
The Cabinet-level talks between the two Koreas will be held in Pyongyang from Feb. 27 to March 2, according to a joint statement adopted at a lower-level meeting in the North Korean border city of Kaesong.
South and North Korea have held 19 high-level meetings since 2000, but they have been suspended for seven months amid chilled relations following North Korea’s missile launches in July and its first-ever nuclear test in October.
The two sides “affirmed each other’s will to continue developing South-North relations,” the statement read.
The meetings have served as a forum for discussing Seoul’s aid to the impoverished North. They could lead to a resumption of the regular delivery of rice and fertilizer to the communist nation. South Korea suspended its aid after the July missile tests.
South Korean delegate Lee Kwan-se said the planned talks will help “advance reconciliation and cooperation between the South and the North, and promote peace on the Korean peninsula.”
“The North side, just as we did, wanted to restore South-North relations and resume dialogue to discuss pending issues,” Lee said, according to pool reports by South Korean journalists.
The disarmament pact reached Tuesday among the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States is worth about $250 million in aid at current prices.
It requires North Korea to seal its main nuclear reactor, allow international inspections and begin accounting for other nuclear programs within 60 days. Within that time, more talks are planned on ending the hostilities between North Korea and the U.S. and Japan.
In return, North Korea will receive 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil, a modest down payment on a promised 1 million tons in oil or aid of a similar value if it ultimately disarms. One million tons of oil is more than two-thirds of North Korea’s entire oil consumption in 2004, according to the CIA Factbook.
Anti-U.S. rhetoric persists
However, North Korea showed no sign of easing its harsh anti-U.S. rhetoric, with its No. 2 leader ordering all soldiers and citizens to maintain a war posture to counter the threat of a military assault by Washington.
“We will mercilessly repel the aggressors and achieve reunification by mobilizing” in case of a U.S. attack, Kim Yong Nam warned Thursday in a speech to thousands of officials that was carried on state television and monitored in South Korea.
Kim, president of North Korea’s parliament, is generally regarded as second to Kim Jong Il in the communist country’s leadership hierarchy.
Such tough talk is not unusual and appears directed at North Koreans as they prepare to celebrate Kim Jong Il’s 65th birthday on Friday. North Korea regularly accuses the U.S. of planning an attack. U.S. officials say they have no such intention.
South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun and President Bush agreed during a telephone conversation that “they were now at a starting point to kick-start the process of resolving the North Korea nuclear issue,” Roh’s office said in a statement Thursday.
The two leaders also “stressed that each country should sincerely implement” the nuclear deal, according to the statement.
Years of trouble-filled negotiations ahead?
While the nuclear agreement marks a turnabout for the North, it still faces potentially years of trouble-filled negotiations.
No timetable was set for North Korea — which has a history of backpedalling on agreements — to declare all of its nuclear programs and ultimately dismantle them.
On Thursday, China urged all the parties to honor the agreement.
“The six-party talks have made an important step forward and the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula has entered a substantive stage,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said. “We hope all parties can honor their commitments and implement the initial actions.”
The two Koreas remain technically at war since the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a cease-fire, but their relations have warmed significantly since their leaders held a summit in 2000.