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Premiers of two Koreas begin talks

The prime ministers of North and South Korea met Wednesday for the first time in 15 years, hoping to extend the detente fostered by the second-ever summit of their leaders last month.
South Korea Koreas Talks
North Korean Premier Kim Yong Il, left, shakes hands with his South Korean counterpart Han Duck-soo, right, during inter-Korean prime ministerial talks at a hotel in Seoul on Wednesday.AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The prime ministers of North and South Korea met Wednesday for the first time in 15 years, hoping to extend the detente fostered by the second-ever summit of their leaders last month with new South Korean investment in the impoverished North.

North Korean Prime Minister Kim Yong Il said after arriving in Seoul on a direct flight from Pyongyang that he thought the three days of talks would "go well in a warm atmosphere" based on his welcome.

The two sides last held prime ministerial talks in 1992 that were suspended amid the first crisis over the North's nuclear weapons program.

Kim ranks below the top members of the North's ruling elite: leader Kim Jong Il and the country's No. 2 official Kim Yong Nam. He is meeting with South Korean Prime Minister Han Duck-soo, who is the deputy of South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun.

This week's talks are aimed at fleshing out an agreement that Roh and the North Korean leader signed at their October summit in Pyongyang — only the second such meeting since the Korean peninsula was divided more than half a century ago.

That accord calls for greater peace and economic cooperation across the world's most heavily fortified border.

Praising that agreement as a big step toward reconciliation, the North Korean delegation stressed Wednesday the importance of taking action.

"No matter how good an agreement is, it ends up an empty piece of paper unless carried out," the North Koreans said in an arrival statement.

The South's Han agreed in comments at the start of the meetings. "We have to reach a very specific agreement at these talks and put it into action," he said.

"I totally agree with your remark," Kim replied. "What's important is to have a good result, rather than sitting here and squabbling."

Cheon Ho-seon, South Korea's presidential spokesman, said the talks demonstrate the two sides are firmly committed to carrying out the summit agreement.

"If we go up the stairs step-by-step like this, we will reach the top one day," Cheon said.

Progress on nuclear dispute
The North-South talks come amid progress in international efforts to rid North Korea of its nuclear programs, with the communist nation beginning to disable its sole operational nuclear reactor recently under a deal with the U.S., South Korea, China, Japan and Russia.

Seoul believes that promoting reconciliation with Pyongyang would facilitate resolution of the nuclear dispute.

This week's negotiations focus mainly on economic cooperation projects, including setting up a joint fishing area around their disputed western sea border and establishing a joint economic area on the North's southwestern coast.

Also on the agenda are building joint shipyards in the North and improving convenience for South Koreans working at a joint industrial zone in the North Korean border city of Kaesong by simplifying border customs inspection and improving communication networks at the zone.

Other topics include expanding reunions of separated families.

Security issues are not expected to be on the table as the two sides will hold defense ministers' talks in Pyongyang later this month.

The North's premier Kim is an economic technocrat who served as the country's land and marine transportation minister. Kim recently visited Vietnam, Malaysia, Cambodia and Laos, signing a series of economic cooperation accords with those countries.

Most other members of the North's 43-strong delegation are also economic officials.

Dozens of anti-North Korea protesters staged a rally outside the talks' venue, accusing the South of making too many concessions to Pyongyang and getting little in return. The group set fire to a picture of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and the country's flag.

"Stop lavishing aid on North Korea!" the protesters chanted as riot police stood guard to prevent them from attempting to approach the hotel.

The two Koreas fought the 1950-53 Korean War that ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, which means that the sides are still technically at war. Their relations have warmed significantly since the first-ever summit in 2000, although the reconciliation process has often been overshadowed by the standoff over the North's nuclear weapons programs.