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U.S., N. Korea talks next week on restoring ties

U.S. and North Korean officials will meet in New York on March 5-6 to discuss initial toward normalizing relations, the State Department said Wednesday.
/ Source: The Associated Press

U.S. and North Korean officials will meet in New York on March 5-6 to discuss initial toward normalizing relations, the State Department said Wednesday.

Spokesman Sean McCormack said U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill will meet with North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan.

Talks on establishing normal relations after decades of hostility were called for in the six-party nuclear disarmament agreement signed in China on Feb. 13.

McCormack said Hill and Kim will spent a lot of time working on the agenda for the normalization process.

"It's not a meeting that will produce immediate results," McCormack said.

Earlier Wednesday, South Korea pressed North Korea to follow through on its pledge to start dismantling its atomic weapons program in the first high-level talks between the two Koreas since the communist regime's October nuclear test.

North Korea did not give a direct response to the appeal, but proposed a full resumption of humanitarian projects, apparently referring to aid shipments the South has regularly given the impoverished nation as well as reunions of families separated since the 1950-53 Korean War.

South, North Cabinet talks
The Cabinet-level meetings, the highest regular dialogue channel between the two sides, got under way in Pyongyang for the first time in seven months Tuesday against the backdrop of a landmark international nuclear agreement. That deal calls for the North to shutter its main nuclear reactor within 60 days in exchange for aid.

In Wednesday's meeting — the first formal negotiating session in the talks that run through Friday — the South's chief delegate, Unification Minister Lee Jae-joung, urged North Korea to "quickly implement the Feb. 13 agreement," said delegation spokesman Lee Kwan-se.

The minister also expressed regret over the North's missile and nuclear tests, blaming them for the seven-month freeze in the inter-Korean reconciliation process, the spokesman said, according to pool reports.

In Washington, Lt. Gen. Michael Maples, head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday that U.S. intelligence officials had seen North Korea take preliminary steps toward shutting down its main nuclear reactor.

South Korea wants to get a firmer North Korean commitment to the international nuclear accord at this week's meetings. But North Korea has shunned discussing the nuclear issue with the South as Pyongyang believes it is a matter between it and the United States only.

The North instead focused on bilateral issues, proposing to reopen various channels of dialogue, including economic cooperation talks and other humanitarian projects that have been on hold over tensions following the North's missile and nuclear tests.

The North's proposal was believed to be mainly aimed at getting the South to resume fertilizer, rice and other economic assistance. The South's aid shipments have propped up the North's frail economy, but were suspended amid the recent tensions.

Family reunions hoped for
In exchange, the North is expected to agree to the South's proposal to resume reunions of families separated since the Korean War, another key humanitarian project.

The South also urged the North to end its interference in South Korea's politics. The North has recently ratcheted up harsh rhetoric of main opposition party in Seoul in an apparent move to prevent its possible win in the December presidential election.

Despite the North's refusal to discuss the nuclear issue with the South, the country has taken other steps showing it is committed to the nuclear deal.

The North already has invited the chief U.N. nuclear inspector to visit to discuss verification of a shutdown of its atomic reactor and its main nuclear negotiator, Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan, passed through China on Tuesday en route to the United States, where he is expected to meet U.S. diplomats in New York.

In addition, the North will hold talks with Japan on establishing diplomatic relations and resolving disputes March 7-8 in Vietnam, Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki said Wednesday.