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South Korea Seeks Progress on Nuclear Issue in Talks With North

Smiling North Korean delegates brushed by reporters as they arrived from Pyongyang at Seoul's Incheon airport.

These are the highest-level talks South Korea has held since last July, when North Korea broke off meetings talks in anger over an airlift of hundreds of northern defectors to Seoul from Southeast Asia.

South Korean authorities say they hope to use the four-day visit to build on the momentum of last week's meeting between South Korean Unification Minister Chung Dong-young and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. Mr. Kim expressed a willingness to return to multinational nuclear weapons talks next month if the United States treated it with respect.

For a year, North Korea has boycotted talks with Russia, China, Japan, the United States and South Korea aimed at ending its nuclear programs. Pyongyang says it has nuclear weapons and will build more, despite past pledges to remain free of them.

The United States says it will treat all parties in the nuclear talks with mutual respect.

Lee Cheong-hyun, a spokesman for South Korea's conservative opposition, agrees that last week's meeting with Kim Jong Il improved conditions for this week's talks. But he adds that certain important topics will likely be left off the agenda. Mr. Lee says North Korea's human rights abuses should be a main part of the discussions.

The government of President Roh Moo-hyun avoids confronting North Korea on the issue of human rights as part of its policy of reconciliation and engagement. Pyongyang is considered by most rights groups as having one of the worst human rights records in the world.

The delegates also are expected to discuss the impoverished North's requests for aid, including a new call for additional fertilizer from Seoul and economic issues.

Talks between the two nations formally start on Wednesday.