- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 12, 2004

SEOUL — North Korea agreed to join a first high-level military meeting with the South yesterday as officials from six countries began working-level talks on Pyongyang’s nuclear standoff.

The North contacted the South by telephone yesterday to agree to earlier southern proposals that general-rank officers meet for military talks, the South Korean Defense Ministry announced.

The ministry said that the date and place has been set for May 26 in the resort of Mount Gumgang, the one area of North Korea patronized by South Korean and international tourists.

The agenda is expected to be ways to reduce tension in the Yellow Sea, where North and South Korean naval forces have clashed in recent years during the crab fishing season. Fatalities have resulted. The agenda may expand to include ways to defuse tension across the peninsula.

The talks will be the first general-level contacts between the two Koreas since the 1953 armistice.

Ongoing talks in the truce village of Panmunjom in the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas are presided over by colonels.

The Beijing negotiations that began yesterday are designed to lay a framework for further high-level talks scheduled to take place by the end of June. The talks — involving China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea and the United States — are aimed at resolving a dispute that started in October 2002 when the United States said North Korea had admitted to having a nuclear weapons program.

“These will be free-wheeling discussions,” said Kwak Tae-han, a standing-committee member of the South’s Advisory Council on Democratic and Peaceful Unification.

According to sources familiar with the talks, the main sticking point between the United States and North Korea, the two chief adversaries of the standoff, is Pyongyang’s demand for compensation for ending its suspected nuclear weapons program.

The United States, which has been bogged down by the war in Iraq, is likely to follow a more conciliatory line in negotiations with the North, officials said.

“[According to Washington sources], the U.S. appears to have softened its hard-line position and seems prepared to accept the North Korean demand for compensation,” Mr. Kwak said.

However, Pyongyang is reported to seek compensation in exchange for a freeze of its nuclear programs, as opposed to the U.S. demand for “complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantling” of the program in advance of aid.

According to news reports in South Korea, there was no progress on the issue on the first day of talks yesterday. However, the United States, Japan and South Korea have agreed to discuss energy aid to the North, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported.

Pyongyang is economically desperate. Its only real ally, China, has a strong interest in the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il visited Beijing last month. Analysts say it is not clear whether the visit was made at the behest of Beijing or was an initiative of Pyongyang, and what message Beijing delivered to the North’s leader.

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