Edging ever closer to speaking with the North

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Edging ever closer to speaking with the North

North Korea says it is willing to talk about all things military face-to-face with South Korea as Seoul prepares to engage in the first talks in months with Pyongyang after it decided to accept North Korea’s offer of high-level military discussions.

The North’s official Korean Central News Agency said yesterday that the “issues the South wants on the agenda for bilateral talks are of a military nature.”

“We have a firm will to solve those [issues] and all other current military issues at the high-level North-South military talks,” the KCNA said, suggesting that the military dialogue be in early February and working-level talks take place in late January.

South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense said it would make a specific request. “We are planning to request preliminary talks for the military talks sometime next week. The preliminary talks look to be held in mid-February,” said Kim Min-seok, a Defense Ministry spokesman, yesterday in a briefing.

The Defense Ministry is currently in negotiations with the Ministry of Unification and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade to work out details on the date, time and venue for the talks, which will likely be held after the Lunar New Year, a holiday both Koreas observe.

The new shift in inter-Korean relations comes after North Korea’s defense minister, Kim Yong-chun, sent a direct statement to South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin for high-level talks on Thursday.

If the two Koreas decide to send their respective defense ministers, it would be the third time in history for an inter-Korean defense summit. The last one took place in 2007.

Seoul sees the latest request as a reciprocal move by North Korea to accept South Korea’s recent call for talks on last year’s provocations, including the Cheonan sinking and the attack on Yeonpyeong Island.

South Korea demands that North Korea take responsibility for the sinking of the Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island and make a promise of no such reoccurrences, Chun Hae-sung, spokesman for the Unification Ministry, said yesterday.

“North Korea needs to come clean on these two issues, apologize and take action in a manner that all citizens will be able to comprehend,” Chun added.

The offer for dialogue followed just hours after U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao expressed concern over North Korea’s uranium enrichment program and spoke of the importance of talks between the two Koreas.

The U.S. welcomed South Korea’s decision to take up the offer from North Korea, calling it an “important step forward.”

“I think some of that comes as a result of yesterday’s meeting here that for the first time there was an acknowledgment by the Chinese about the North Koreans’ enrichment program,” said Robert Gibbs, White House press secretary.

“Clearly, conditions were created yesterday that showed the Republic of Korea that China and the United States were aligned in dealing with the aggressions of the North Koreans,” Gibbs said. “So I think it is clearly a positive step.”

Washington’s positive view of the talks was reiterated by Philip Crowley, U.S. State Department spokesman, but he said the U.S. would not “talk for talks’ sake.”

“We underscore that it is important for North Korea to take meaningful steps to improve inter-Korean relations. We’re looking for clear signs that North Korea will seriously meet its obligations and demonstrates that it’s prepared to have constructive dialogue. We don’t want to call for a resumption of the six-party process until we are confident that those kinds of discussions will be productive,” he said.

Meanwhile, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg will be in Seoul next week from Jan. 26 for two days to discuss the outcome of the summit talks between Washington and Beijing, said the Foreign Ministry yesterday.

By Christine Kim [christine.kim@joongang.co.kr]

Related Korean Article [중앙일보]

남북 고위 군사회담 2월 중순 유력
정부, 다음주 예비회담 제안

정부는 21일 북한과의 고위급 군사회담 개최를 위한 준비작업에 착수했다. 군사회담의 주무부서인 국방부와 회담운영을 뒷받침할 통일부 등 관계부처는 대책회의 등을 잇따라 열어 다음 주 중반 북한에 예비회담을 제안하기로 방침을 정했다. 예비회담에서는 고위급 회담 수석대표(북한은 단장)의 급(級)을 어느 수준으로 하고 의제를 무엇으로 할지를 잡게 된다.

예비회담과 설 명절 연휴 등을 고려하면 고위급 회담 개최 시기는 2월 중순께로 잡힐 가능성이 크다. 북한이 제의한 ‘고위급’이 무얼 의미하는지는 아직 분명치 않다. 남북회담에 관여해온 한 당국자는 “북한이 국방장관 회담을 하려 한다면 ‘인민무력부장과 국방장관 간 회담’이라고 명시했을 것”이라며 “예비회담을 통해 북한에 타진해봐야 할 문제”라고 말했다.

정부는 예비회담에서 연평도 공격뿐 아니라 천안함 폭침에 대한 북한의 분명한 입장 표명이 있어야 한다는 입장이다. 천해성 통일부 대변인은 21일 브리핑에서 “천안함·연평도 문제에 대해 당연히 북한의 시인과 사과, 우리 국민이 납득할 수준의 책임 있는 조치가 필요하다”고 강조했다. 하지만 북한은 21일 김영춘 인민무력부장 명의로 하루 전 보낸 대남전통문의 내용을 관영매체를 통해 상세히 공개하며 신경전을 벌였다. 북한은 “서한에는 회담의제를 천안호 사건과 연평도 포격전에 대한 견해를 밝히고, 조선반도의 긴장상태를 해소할 데 대하여로 하는 걸로 돼 있다”고 강조했다. …

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