The two Koreas will break an eight-month deadlock in diplomatic relations and hold military talks this week, their first since Seoul's new, conservative president took office in February, South Korean officials said Wednesday.
The talks Thursday inside the Demilitarized Zone come at a time of heightened tensions over North Korea's move to restart its nuclear facilities and concern about communist leader Kim Jong Il's health. Kim, 66, has not been seen for weeks since reportedly suffering a stroke in mid-August.
North Korea's decision to stop disabling its Yongbyon nuclear reprocessing plant and to take steps to restore it — in violation of a 2007 pact — has alarmed regional powers. Chief U.S. nuclear negotiator Christopher Hill was in Pyongyang on Wednesday to try to salvage the international disarmament-for-aid deal.
Technically at war
In South Korea, President Lee Myung-bak marked Armed Forces Day by calling for a stronger military. North and South Korea remain technically at war.
"Only a strong military can defend our land, deter war and guarantee peace," he said in an address televised nationally.
South Korea's military "should be prepared to deal sternly with any forces that threaten our security," Lee said, without naming the country's communist adversary by name.
The 1950-53 Korean conflict that killed millions and left the peninsula divided ended in a truce, not a peace treaty. Some 28,500 U.S. troops are stationed in South Korea to help defend the ally against threats from the North's 1.1 million-strong military, the world's fifth-largest.
Relations between the two Koreas warmed significantly following the first-ever summit of their leaders in 2000.
But Lee, a conservative, has taken a hard-line stance on North Korea that has roused Pyongyang's ire. The regime suspended all government-level talks with the South when he took office.
Thursday's meeting of colonels from both militaries at the border village inside the DMZ will be the two sides' first official contact since Lee took office, though officials from both sides have met as part of international negotiations over Pyongyang's nuclear program.
The North proposed the military talks last week, and the South sent a counterproposal with a new date, South Korean defense officials said.