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Two Koreas Extend Economic Talks, No Progress on Nuclear Standoff


South Korean Vice Unification Minister Rhee Bong-jo, left, shakes hands with North Korean counterpart Kim Man Gil
North and South Korea have extended their talks an extra day, as Seoul continues pressing its neighbor to return to nuclear disarmament talks. South Korean authorities have indicated they are unlikely to agree to the North's requests for aid unless there is progress on the nuclear issue.

South Korean authorities say that talks with North Korea will be extended for at least one more day, resuming Thursday.

Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon spoke to reporters Wednesday about the progress of the talks.

Mr. Ban says South Korea is working on new proposals to assist the North, if it returns to multinational talks on its nuclear weapons programs.

The talks resumed for the first time this week after a 10-month hiatus imposed by Pyongyang because South Korea airlifted hundreds of North Korean defectors to Seoul last July.

The talks normally deal with economic and humanitarian matters, but this session has been complicated by North Korea's refusal to return to multinational nuclear negotiations for nearly a year.

South Korea, the United States, Russia, China, and Japan have tried since last June to convince North Korea to return to negotiations aimed at ending its nuclear weapons programs. In recent months, North Korea has said it has nuclear weapons and intends to produce more, despite having signed several international agreements to remain nuclear free. There also are fears Pyongyang may be preparing for a nuclear test.

At this week's talks, Pyongyang apparently is requesting 500,000 tons of fertilizer to help produce food. South Korean negotiators have indicated it would be difficult for Seoul to comply if there is no progress on the nuclear issue.

Professor Nam Sung-wook, a North Korea specialist at Korea University in Seoul, says such requests are politically difficult for the South.

"If North Korea will [come] back to the six-party talks next June, the South Koreans will have no problem supporting North Korea this year. However, with the nuclear crisis, South Korea can't decide (on) the support," he said.

South Korea usually treats humanitarian aid to the North as a separate matter from the nuclear issue.

However, Professor Nam points out North Korea's fertilizer request is more than double the 200,000 tons South Korea earlier agreed to provide. Providing the extra assistance with no progress on the nuclear issue would subject authorities in Seoul to sharp criticism from opposition parties here.

The United States and its partners are urging the North to return to the nuclear bargaining table, saying successful talks are the best way for Pyongyang to receive the economic assistance it needs. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, the chief U.S. delegate to the nuclear talks, said Wednesday in Australia that there is no formal deadline for North Korea to resume talks, but added that Washington is not willing to wait "forever."

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