Nuclear talks on agenda as two Koreas meet


Senior officials from South and North Korea are to meet early next week, a gathering Seoul's Unification Ministry said it would use to press Pyongyang to return to stalled six-party nuclear talks.

Mr Rhee Bong-jo, Vice Unification Minister, told reporters that talks would be held in the North Korean city of Kaesong on May 16 and 17 to deal with the North's request for fertiliser assistance.

Earlier in the day, Mr Kwon Ho-ung -- who heads the North's delegation to the inter-Korean ministerial talks -- proposed the meeting in a telegram to Seoul's Unification Minister Chung Dong-young, the North's official mouthpiece KCNA said.

"We will also deliver our stand on North Korea's nuclear programme as well as concerns of the international community. I believe this bilateral talks could foster a positive mood for the nuclear talks," Mr Rhee said.

The North requested 500,000 tonnes of fertiliser earlier this year from the South, but Seoul has put off a decision on the assistance.

The request for larger-than-usual fertiliser aid indicates the impoverished North was anticipating greater trouble feeding its 23 million people, analysts have said.

Low-profile officials from both sides last met in Kaesong in late April for talks on helping the reclusive state combat a bird flu outbreak.

But dialogue between high-ranking officials has stalled since July last year when Pyongyang was angered by a secret airlift of more than 460 North Korean refugees from Vietnam.

Political and commercial ties between the two Koreas, which are technically at war under a truce that ended the 1950-53 Korean war, had been warming.

The two Koreas, the United States, Japan, China and Russia met for three rounds of talks up to June 2004 with no substantive progress. The North agreed to meet for a fourth round, originally set for last September but yet to take place.

The two Koreas, which have been technically at war since the 1950-53 Korean War ended without a peace treaty, have arranged a series of reunions of families separated by the war.

In Tokyo, a Japanese newspaper said a senior US State Department official held telephone talks with North Korea's deputy ambassador to the United Nations.

Quoting unnamed sources including US government officials in Washington, the Asahi Shimbun daily said a senior US State Department official held talks on the phone with Mr Han Song-ryol, North Korea's deputy ambassador to the United Nations.

No details of the talks were available, but Asahi said they were believed to be held after North Korea declared on Wednesday it had removed spent fuel from a nuclear reactor, a process that could yield more material for atomic weapons.

Asahi said it was the first contact between the United States and North Korea since early December.