- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 19, 2003

SEOUL, South Korea, April 19 (UPI) — After rattling the world with its claim of getting closer to weapons-grade plutonium, North Korea proposed Saturday resuming high-level reconciliation talks with South Korea later this month.

"North Korea proposed this morning the holding of the delayed minister-level talks on April 27-29 in the North's capital of Pyongyang," South Korea's Unification Ministry said. The proposal was made in a telephone message sent by Kim Ryong Sung, North Korea's chief delegate to the ministerial talks, to his South Korean counterpart, Jeong Se-hyun, who is also unification minister.

"We will send a reply at an early date after having discussions with relevant government agencies. We could accept the proposal," a ministry spokesman said.

"We will use the inter-Korean talks to call for North Korea to address international concerns about its nuclear ambitions and discuss humanitarian aid to the North," a senior ministry official United Press International.

The Pyongyang meeting would be the first round of ministerial talks under new South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, who took office in February with a pledge to push for unconditional reconciliation with the North.

The ministerial talks has been the highest-level channel between the two Koreas to review their reconciliation efforts and discuss cooperation projects under the historic agreement reached at the summit of the their leaders in 2000.

Since March, North Korea has cut off all dialogue with the South, blasting Seoul's support of the U.S. stance toward Pyongyang and for the U.S.-led war on Iraq. It canceled the ministerial talks originally set for April 7-10.

The North's proposal came after South Korea asked Pyongyang Friday to revive inter-Korea talks, responding to Pyongyang's request of rice and fertilizer aid. South Korea criticized North Korea for asking for economic aid, while excluding Seoul from next week's nuclear talks in China.

The proposal also came after North Korea's claim Friday night that it had begun reprocessing thousands of spent fuel rods, which could yield enough plutonium for several atomic bombs.

South Korean officials said the wording of the North's statement was ambiguous as to whether the reprocessing had already started or whether Pyongyang meant it was close to reprocessing.

"There are no signs so far that North Korea has begun reprocessing spent fuel rods," Ra Jong-yil, South Korea's national security adviser, told journalists.

South Korea officials said next week's planned talks on North Korea's suspected nuclear weapons program would go ahead despite the North's claim of spent fuel rods reprocessing.

Deputy Foreign Minister Lee Soo-hyuck who attended talks in Washington with Japanese and U.S. officials Friday said the United States would proceed as planned.

Senior officials from the United States, North Korea and China are scheduled to meet in Bejing next week for crucial three-party talks to discuss Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions.

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