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SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea agreed on Thursday to a North Korean offer of high-level military talks, a major breakthrough in the crisis on the peninsula that improves the prospect of renewed aid-for-disarmament negotiations.
Hours after U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao stood shoulder to shoulder in Washington decrying the North's nuclear aspirations, Pyongyang bowed to Seoul's demands for talks about two deadly attacks last year.
Washington and Beijing have argued that North-South dialogue is a prerequisite to a resumption of six-party talks involving the two Koreas, the United States, China, Japan and Russia.
In 2009, Pyongyang walked out of the aid-for-disarmament talks, under which it previously agreed to abandon its nuclear programs, pronouncing them dead.
While Washington welcomed the possibility of North-South military talks, it made clear Pyongyang must take significant, if unspecified, actions before six-party talks could resume.
A South Korean defence ministry spokesman said it had not been decided whether the inter-Korean talks would be held at the ministerial level, as suggested by Pyongyang in a dispatch to the South Korean capital.
A unification ministry official said Pyongyang had accepted Seoul's demands to specifically discuss the sinking of its warship Cheonan in March, which killed 46 sailors, and the North's November 23 attack on an island, which killed four people.
The attacks, along with the North's revelations of advances in a uranium enrichment program that opened a second route to making a nuclear bomb along with its plutonium work, pushed tensions on the peninsula to their highest level in years.
"The government also plans to propose high-ranking talks on denuclearisation," the defence ministry spokesman said, adding Seoul had agreed to the North's proposal for preliminary talks to prepare for the high-level talks.
As part of its demands for inter-Korean dialogue, Seoul said North Korea must show sincerity on denuclearisation, as agreed under a 2005 deal.
North Korea has used its nuclear programme to gain leverage in talks over the past two decades that produced two deals meant to compensate Pyongyang with economic aid for ending it.
Pyongyang has been seeking talks since the start of the year, but Seoul had rejected Pyongyang's overtures as insincere propaganda, saying the North was trying only to win aid.
U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates last week held out the possibility of a resumption of six-party talks if North Korea ceased provocations and met its obligations.
While welcoming the plans for North-South military talks, Mark Toner, a U.S. State Department spokesman, said the United States wanted to see concrete action from North Korea before resuming six-party talks.
"We view it as a positive sign," Toner told reporters. "It's something that helps ease tensions in the region. We still believe that North Korea has a ways to go before we can engage in meaningful six-party talks."
Last week a senior U.S. official gave the most explicit list to date of what Washington wants from Pyongyang to resume the wider talks: the return of international nuclear inspectors to the North and a halt to its nuclear and missile tests.
Moon Hong-sik of the South's Institute for National Security Strategy said Wednesday's Hu-Obama summit may have pushed the North into submitting to Seoul's demands.
"North Korea understands that it must have North-South dialogue first before it can resume six-party talks," he said. "But there is still a long way to go, because it still has to prove its sincerity and apologise for last year's provocations."
A joint statement issued by Obama and Hu at their summit agreed on the importance of denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula and on the need to implement agreements reached earlier by six-party talks on North Korea's programmes.
The United States and its allies South Korea and Japan have been pressing China, North Korea's economic and diplomatic backer, to do more to rein in Pyongyang's behaviour and to nudge the North back to six-party talks.
North Korea says its shelling of Yeonpyeong island was provoked by South Korea firing live ammunition from there into disputed waters in a military drill. It has denied the South's accusation that it sank the Cheonan.
Both the United States and South Korea say Pyongyang's revelations last year about its uranium enrichment programme show it is insincere about denuclearising. The North says the uranium programme is for peaceful purposes.
South Korean Deputy Defence Minister Chang Kwang-il said North Korea had asked Seoul to select a convenient date and venue for the proposed military talks, Yonhap reported. The last meeting of defence ministers took place in Pyongyang in November 2007.
(Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed in Washington)
Reporting by Jeremy Laurence, Hyunjoo Jin and Miyoung Kim; editing by Daniel Magnowski and Mohammad Zargham