- Associated Press - Monday, July 12, 2010

SEOUL (AP) — Military officers from North Korea and the American-led U.N. Command will hold rare talks Tuesday on the deadly sinking of a South Korean warship, the command said, their first meeting since the incident dramatically raised tensions on the Korean peninsula.

An international investigation concluded in May that North Korea torpedoed the vessel, killing 46 sailors. Pyongyang flatly denies it was responsible and has warned any punishment would trigger war.

The U.N. Command, which oversees an armistice that ended the Korean War in 1953, separately investigated the March 26 sinking to find out whether North Korea violated the truce, though details of that probe have not been made available.

Late last month, the command proposed military talks with North Korea to review its findings and initiate dialogue.

The North first rejected the offer, criticizing the United States for allegedly trying to meddle in inter-Korean affairs under the name of the United Nations.

But Pyongyang changed its position last week and proposed working-level talks at the Korean border village of Panmunjom to prepare for higher-level talks on the sinking. The U.N. Command said in a statement Monday that the sides will meet at 10 a.m. Tuesday (9 p.m. EDT Monday).

It wasn’t clear how the talks would proceed. But South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported Monday that the North is expected to reiterate its accusation that South Korea and the United States faked evidence to link it to the sinking, which occurred near the tense inter-Korean sea border.

The U.N. Command, for its part, likely will demand Pyongyang refrain from any provocations and punish those responsible for the sinking, Yonhap said. The report did not cite any sources.

The North said Friday that it decided to agree to the military talks because South Korea had rebuffed its calls for direct inter-Korean discussions on the issue.

North Korea and the U.N. Command launched general-level talks in 1998 as a measure to lessen tensions between the sides, the statement said. The meeting Tuesday would constitute the 17th of its kind, it said.

The United States stations 28,500 troops in South Korea, a legacy of the Korean War, which ended in an armistice that has never been replaced with a permanent peace treaty.

The U.N. Security Council on Friday approved a statement that condemned the sinking but stopped short of directly blaming North Korea. The next day, the North said it will make efforts to resume stalled disarmament talks on its nuclear program and conclude a peace treaty that formally could end the Korean War, a sign that the regime is satisfied with the U.N. Security Council’s less stringent presidential statement.

The signing of a peace treaty is a coveted goal for North Korea, which has argued it was forced to develop atomic weapons to cope with U.S. nuclear threats. The United States repeatedly has said it has no intention of attacking the North.