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Wary start to Korean peace talks

The meetings in Seoul represent the first high-level talks between the two sides in almost a year
The meetings in Seoul represent the first high-level talks between the two sides in almost a year  

SEOUL, South Korea (CNN) -- High-level talks between North and South Korea finally began on Monday after a disagreement over the timetable for discussions delayed the start of the meeting.

The three-days of cabinet-level talks are hoped to revive the inter-Korean peace process that stalled since the two sides last met in November.

The two-hour delay was a hiccup in what had been upbeat preparations by both sides, with discussions expected to focus on severed rail and road links, military ties and family reunions.

Monday's talks lasted for just over an hour with both sides giving away little on what was discussed. The delegations are expected to dine together Monday night before talks resume on Tuesday.

"You may expect something positive. I am expecting a large fruit," was the curt response from North Korean delegation chief Kim Ryung-sung told reporters -- not a reference to Monday night's dinner menu.

His counterpart South Korean Unification Minister Jeong Se-hyun, who heads Seoul's delegation, declined to comment on proceedings.

The meetings are taking place in Seoul follow the June 29 naval clash between vessels from the two sides that left 17 sailors dead.

Pyongyang last month expressed its regret over the incident.

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South Korean officials said they expect the current talks to focus on several projects that have been on the table for some time, rather than proposing any new agreements.

Among the subjects expected to be discussed are resuming construction of a railway linking North and South, and aiding an ailing tourism project to the northern Kumgang mountains.

Discussions may also raise the possibility of more reunions of families divided by the 1950-53 Korean War.

All three projects were agreed to in principle during the June 2000 summit between South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

However, progress has become bogged down in deteriorating relations between the two sides.

'Heavy hearts'

"Promises were made but haven't been realized," Unification Minister Jeong Se-hyun told North Korea's chief delegate, Kim Ryung Sung shortly before the two sides sat down for their first round of discussions.

"Our representatives, including me, come here with heavy hearts," he said.

Jeong added that the outcome of the talks would be closely watched by other governments.

"Internationally, our neighbors, the United States and the European Union, are monitoring what results will emerge," he said.

"They are planning to decide on their Korean peninsula policies after observing these talks."

For his part the North Korean envoy agreed on the importance of combined efforts to make progress in building closer ties.

"Let's put our hearts and minds together and hold a successful round of talks that yield results the entire nation hopes for," Kim Ryung-sung head of the 29-strong North Korean delegation said.

Almost five decades on North and South Korean remain officially at war, never having signed a formal peace treaty ending this conflict.

Holiday reunion

The border between the two Koreas is one of the most heavily fortified in the world
The border between the two Koreas is one of the most heavily fortified in the world  

Next month the two Koreas celebrate a Thanksgiving holiday and officials in the South have expressed hope these latest talks could lead to a further round of family reunions in the northern mountains coinciding with the holiday.

The South also wants to hold follow-up talks between military officials to discuss ways of preventing further military clashes, although such defense issues may be more difficult to broach.

There had been concern after the June sea battle that North Korea would follow a harder line with the South, but that has not been the case.

The two countries are set to hold a joint soccer match in November, and there are other signs the North is warming to the idea of more talks, such as participating in the 14th Asian Games in September in Busan, South Korea.

South Korean analysts have said increased talk of possible U.S. plans to attack Iraq -- part of President Bush's so-called "axis of evil", that also included Iran and North Korea -- is one reason the North is more amenable to the idea of cross-border discussions.

They say the North's apparent openness to talks is an effort to demonstrate to the world it is more engaged in the region.

-- CNN Seoul Bureau Chief Sohn Jie-Ae contributed to this report




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