Wednesday, February 2, 2011

South Korea and North Korea agree to hold working-level military talks on February 8

South and North Korea agreed to hold working-level military talks on Feb. 8, officials said Tuesday, in what would be their first dialogue since the North's deadly artillery attack on a border island last November.

   North Korea sent a notice to the South's defense ministry earlier in the day, proposing the new date for the preliminary talks, and the South accepted it in a reply message, ministry officials said.

   "Both sides also agreed that the working-level military talks will involve colonel-level officers from the two sides," an official said.

   The talks will be held at the border truce village of Panmunjom separating the two Koreas.

   The meeting is aimed at setting the date, place and agenda for higher-level military talks, possibly at the level of defense ministers.

   The preliminary talks are expected to be led by Col. Moon Sang-gyun of the South and Col. Ri Son-kwon of the North, who have served as representatives for working-level military talks from each side for years, the official said on the condition of anonymity.

   Tensions persist on the Korean Peninsula after the North's artillery strike on Yeonpyeong Island killed two marines and two civilians. The bombardment came after a multinational investigation concluded that North Korea torpedoed a South Korean warship, killing 46 sailors last March.

   South Korea had originally suggested that the working-level talks take place on Feb. 11, but North Korea wanted to bring the talks forward by 10 days.

   The agreement on the new date for the preliminary talks came a day after the South rejected the North's demand for an early meeting.

   It was not immediately clear whether the North wanted an earlier date, but officials here said in private that Pyongyang may be trying to increase its bargaining position ahead of the birthday of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il that falls on Feb. 16.

   The South's defense ministry has said it is willing to hold higher-level talks, but only if North Korea apologizes and takes responsibility for the two attacks.

   North Korea has so far denied any involvement in the warship sinking and insists that its artillery attack on Yeonpyeong was legitimate because the South first provoked the North by holding a live-fire drill near the island with some shells falling on the North's side.

   In a TV debate program early Tuesday, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak urged North Korea to seize a "good opportunity" as the two Koreas are preparing for the military talks, expressing expectations that North Korea could have changed its provocative behaviors.

   Asked if a successful military meeting could lead to the resumption of international disarmament talks on the North's nuclear programs and an inter-Korean summit, Lee replied, "(I) can hold a summit (with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il) if necessary."

   "For North Korea, now is a good opportunity to show that it is willing to change. I have high expectations, as North Korea is facing the time for a change," Lee said.