- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 22, 2009

SEOUL (AP) | Top South and North Korean officials in charge of inter-Korean relations opened talks Saturday for the first time in nearly two years amid a series of conciliatory moves by North Korea after months of tensions on the divided peninsula.

Unification Minister Hyun In-taek met visiting North Korean spy chief Kim Yang-gon, who also handles inter-Korean affairs, ministry spokeswoman Lee Jong-joo said. She did not give further details.

The last time officials responsible for inter-Korean affairs met was for several days from late November to early December of 2007 during the administration of former South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun.

“I would like to talk inter-Korean” issues, Mr. Hyun told reporters before he entered a hotel conference room for discussions with his North Korean counterpart, Yonhap news agency reported.

But he sounded cautious about whether the North Korean delegation would make a courtesy call to President Lee Myung-bak, whose hard-line policy toward the communist regime has soured bilateral relations.

The talks came a day after Mr. Kim and five other senior North Koreans flew to Seoul to pay their respects to the late Kim Dae-jung, a former South Korean president beloved on both sides of the border for his pursuit of closer ties between the divided states.

The North Koreans were scheduled to return home later Saturday.

The meeting also marked the first high-level talks between the two Koreas since Mr. Lee, a pro-U.S. conservative leader, took office in February of last year.

On Friday, the black-clad North Koreans lit incense, bowed their heads and laid a floral wreath before a large portrait of the late Mr. Kim at a memorial site on the grounds of the National Assembly, where the funeral will be held. The delegation was the first Pyongyang ever sent to mourn a South Korean leader.

Mr. Kim, who died Tuesday at age 85, was respected on both sides of the border for his efforts to forge detente with the North.

He reached out to South Korea’s impoverished neighbor with aid - the main thrust of his “Sunshine Policy” that earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000 - and held a landmark summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in 2000.

The visit is the latest indication that North Korea wants to improve relations on the peninsula after months of tensions. The communist nation recently pulled out of nuclear negotiations, conducted an atomic test and test-fired a barrage of missiles, earning international condemnation and U.N. sanctions.

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