Korea breakthrough as Seoul agrees to talks with North

Thu Jan 20, 2011 8:58pm GMT

By Jeremy Laurence and Hyunjoo Jin

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.   Continued...

<p>Students shout at a winter military boot camp during a media opportunity at a military unit in Bucheon, west of Seoul January 20, 2011. REUTERS/Lee Jae-Won</p>
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