South Korea Accepts North Request for First Talks Since November Shelling

South Korea said it will accept North Korea’s proposal to hold military talks, their first contact since Kim Jong Il’s regime shelled a South Korean island in November, killing four people.

South Korea decided to hold talks with North Korea after the communist nation yesterday said it was willing to discuss the artillery attack as well as the March sinking of a South Korean warship, according to an e-mailed statement from the Unification Ministry in Seoul. North Korea proposed discussing “ways to defuse military tensions,” the statement said.

The meeting will be the first between the two countries since Sept. 30, when their militaries failed to make progress on getting North Korea to acknowledge it sank the warship, killing 46 sailors. A renewed dialogue also comes amid exchanges among nations involved in stalled talks on North Korea’s nuclear program, including President Barack Obama’s meeting with Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao this week in Washington.

Obama said Jan. 19 he “appreciated China’s role in reducing tensions on the Korean peninsula” and that he had agreed with Hu “that North Korea must avoid further provocations.” China is North Korea’s major political ally and economic benefactor.

International Pressure

“It’s not just North Korea, which is desperate for talks, but South Korea must have also felt international pressure to engage the North to help ease tensions,” said Paik Hak Soon, director of inter-Korean relations at the Sejong Institute outside Seoul. “Once dialogue resumes, the momentum will keep building to set the mood to discuss the North’s nuclear program.”

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg will visit South Korea on Jan. 26, before traveling to Japan and China, the State Department said yesterday in an e-mailed statement. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates visited the three Asian countries last week when he said engagement between South Korea and North Korea should be made before broader disarmament discussions can resume.

The six-party nuclear forum, also involving Russia, last met in December 2008. The government in Pyongyang has since detonated a second nuclear device in 2009 and revealed to U.S. scientists in November a plant for enriching uranium, providing another means of making atomic bombs in addition to a previously known plutonium-based program.

Gaeseong Complex

Romanson Co., a Seoul-based watchmaker with operations at the Gaeseong industrial complex operated by South Korea and North Korea, gained 5.5 percent as of 11:20 a.m. in Seoul trading, the most since Sept. 13. Shinwon Corp., which also operates at the complex in North Korea, rose 3.5 percent, compared with the benchmark Kospi index’s 1.1 percent loss.

North Korea proposed holding “high-level” military talks in early February after opening preliminary discussions later this month, the state-run Korean Central News Agency reported today, citing a letter sent to South Korea yesterday. The letter was signed by Kim Yong Chun, minister of the People’s Armed Forces, and addressed to South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan Jin, according to KCNA.

The preliminary talks may take place in mid-February, Yonhap News reported, citing South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min Seok.

Economic Talks

South Korea has resisted repeated North Korean proposals for dialogue on economic projects this month, saying any talks must first address North Korea’s two attacks last year. North Korea denies any involvement in the sinking of the Cheonan warship, and says the shelling was provoked by South Korea’s infringement of territory that North Korea claims as its own.

The Unification Ministry said yesterday there should also be separate inter-Korean talks where North Korea should reaffirm its commitment to giving up its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Obama said North Korea’s uranium program is in violation of its commitment to denuclearization, which he and Hu agreed was the “paramount goal,” according to a transcript on the White House website.

South Korean President Lee Myung Bak said on Jan. 15 the United Nations Security Council should discuss North Korea’s uranium program. Lee made the comments to visiting Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara.

North Korea is already under Security Council sanctions for its two nuclear tests, helping its economy shrink 0.9 percent in 2009, according to data from the Bank of Korea in Seoul.

To contact the reporters on this story: Bomi Lim in Seoul at blim30@bloomberg.net; Shinhye Kang in Seoul at skang24@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Peter Hirschberg in Hong Kong at phirschberg@bloomberg.net

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