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North Korea dialogue with South; UN talks set

South Korean delegates Rhee Bong-jo (L), Seo Myung-kyo (R) and Unification Minister Jung Sae-Hyun (C) pose for the press before leaving for North Korea
South Korean delegates Rhee Bong-jo (L), Seo Myung-kyo (R) and Unification Minister Jung Sae-Hyun (C) pose for the press before leaving for North Korea  

SEOUL, South Korea -- A South Korean delegation has left for the North for talks aimed at resuming the stalled dialogue between the neighbors.

North Korea has also extended an offer to meet with the U.S. led United Nations Command next week to discuss their naval clash with the South in June.

The U.N. Command has twice requested to discuss the issue with North Korea.

"Today the KPA (North Korean People's Army) responded to a request from the U.N. Command for general officer talks to reduce tension in the west sea," Reuters news agency reported a command statement to have said.

"The U.N. Command is reviewing the response from the KPA."

The three-day gathering between the two Koreas, which began late Friday in the North Korean Mount Kumgang resort, aims to set a date for higher-level ministerial talks between the two sides.

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The South Korean delegation, led by Assistant Unification Minister Rhee Bong-jo, will ask the North to recommit to goodwill projects such as family visits and a North-South railroad link.

The talks follow North Korea's recent expression of regret over a naval incident in June which killed 18 sailors. Pyongyang initially blamed the South for firing first in the sea battle which left five South Korean and at least 12 North Korean sailors dead.

North Korea voiced regret for the incident clearing the way for the resumption of talks.

Rhee said he would "be consistent in pressing for steps that are acceptable to the public" in discussing the naval clash, Reuters reports.

But as the South Korean delegation travelled north, Pyongyang issued a report rejecting a 49-year-old inter-Korean maritime border. In another sign of the unpredictability of the North, Pyongyang is calling for the sea border to be renegotiated.

Despite the mixed messages from the communist government in Pyongyang, South Korean observers are positive about the forthcoming talks.

Reuters reports observers saying they expect progress from the meeting as North Korea is reopening contact with the United States and Japan, and is trying to repair its ruined economy.

ASEAN meet

On the sidelines of the ASEAN regional forum meeting in Brunei this week, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and Japanese Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi held talks with their North Korean counterpart.

Seoul and Pyongyang remain technically at war because they never signed a peace treaty after their 1950-53 war, which killed millions on each side.

A landmark summit in June 2000 between the two Korean leaders led to a flurry of projects, including restoring railroad links and family exchanges.

But Pyongyang called off planned economic talks early in May, partly because of tension with the United States.

The United States this year dented ties with North Korea, after President George W. Bush called the isolationist state part of an "axis of evil" along with Iran and Iraq.

Reuters contributed to this report.




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