- The Washington Times - Friday, May 7, 2004

SEOUL — North Korea agreed yesterday to hold rare high-level military talks with Seoul aimed at easing tensions on the world’s most heavily armed border, and a convoy of South Korean trucks rumbled over that frontier with aid for victims of last month’s train disaster.

The two Korean militaries, still facing off across the Demilitarized Zone, seldom hold talks, although the two governments have expanded economic and political exchanges in recent years.

Earlier yesterday, the two sides ended three days of Cabinet-level meetings in the North’s capital, Pyongyang, without any agreement on increasing economic exchanges or reducing military tensions along their border. But in a reversal after the meeting’s close, the People’s Army agreed to hold talks “soon” with the South Korean military.

South Korean Unification Minister Jeong Se-hyun expected the meeting to take place this month, as his delegation has demanded. The countries made a similar agreement during their last Cabinet-level talks in February, but no date was set and the North later refused to meet.

North Korea, repeating its decades-old position, earlier insisted it would open military talks only if South Korea halts routine military exercises with the United States, which it calls preparations to invade the isolated country. South Korea rejected the North Korean demand.

Instead, the South called for high-level military talks later this month to discuss ways of avoiding naval clashes that sometimes occur along the poorly marked western sea border as fishing boats jostle for position during crab-catching season in May and June.

For decades, however, the North has shunned the South Korean military, dismissing it as a stooge of U.S. forces.

The defense ministers of the Koreas met in September 2000, following that year’s historic inter-Korean summit, but the North has since rejected the South’s proposal for talks involving generals. It has only allowed colonels to meet and limited their discussions to aiding economic exchanges across the border.

A brief joint statement said the next round of Cabinet-level talks will take place in Seoul on Aug. 3-6.

Also yesterday, a convoy of 20 South Korean trucks rumbled through military checkpoints and across the Demilitarized Zone to deliver school supplies to victims of the April 22 train explosion.

The 8-ton trucks and their cargo of 50 blackboards and 1,500 desk-and-chair sets are part of a $25 million aid package South Korea promised last week to help rebuild the North Korean town of Ryongchon, where a train blast killed 169 persons, nearly half of them children, and injured 1,300. About 8,100 homes were destroyed.

During the Cabinet talks, Mr. Jeong urged North Korea to work toward resolving an international standoff over its nuclear weapons development.

The United States, the two Koreas, China, Japan and Russia plan to call a third round of six-nation talks in Beijing before July to end the nuclear crisis, after two previous rounds produced no breakthroughs. The nations are scheduled to hold low-level meetings May 12 in Beijing to lay the groundwork for the third round.

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