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N. Korea Asks South to Resume Humanitarian Projects


North and South Korea are talking to each other again, after Pyongyang's missile and nuclear tests sparked a seven-month freeze in dialogue. At ministerial talks in Pyongyang, North Korea has suggested a resumption of "humanitarian projects" - which experts assume is a request for the South to restart shipments of food and fertilizer. VOA's Kurt Achin has more from Seoul.

North Korean negotiator Kwan Ho Woong opened the renewed dialogue Wednesday by proposing that the two Koreas resume what he called "humanitarian projects."

Although Kwan did not specifically ask for a resumption of South Korea's transfers of food and fertilizer to the North, experts assume that is what he had in mind. Pyongyang badly needs such assistance to help overcome its chronic food shortage.

Referring to a historic North-South summit in June of 2000, Kwan said this is an age of cooperation and compromise between the two Koreas.

Inter-Korean talks have been on hold since July, however, after North Korea defied the South and the international community by test-launching a series of ballistic missiles. South Korea halted humanitarian aid to the North, leading Pyongyang to suspend most inter-Korean contacts. North Korea went on to conduct its first nuclear weapons test in October.

However, the two Koreas wasted no time in rescheduling contacts after a breakthrough agreement at this month's six-nation talks in Beijing, aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear weapons programs.

North Korea promised South Korea, China, Russia, Japan and the United States it would disable its main plutonium-producing reactor within 60 days in exchange for donations of fuel oil.

South Korean Unification Minister Lee Jae-joung praised that agreement Wednesday as a good model for inter-Korean talks.

He says the February agreement was achieved under a principle of equality, and with an open mind.

South Korea is in charge of implementing the fuel shipments for the first phase of the agreement. A second phase promises North Korea much more fuel, and a host of diplomatic benefits. In return, it requires Pyongyang to fully reveal and begin dismantling all its nuclear programs.

Ryoo Kihl-jae is Dean of Seoul's Kyungnam Graduate School of North Korean Studies. He says because this is the first time the two Koreas have met in seven months, the talks' goals are likely to be modest.

He says there are many important inter-Korean issues to be dealt with, such as resuming inter-Korean family reunions and testing cross-border railroad connections. However, at this particular session, Ryoo says, the two sides are likely to devote most of their attention to coordinating implementation of the Beijing agreement.

That agreement has also opened door to other diplomatic contacts. North Korea's chief nuclear negotiator, Kim Kye Kwan, is expected to visit the United States soon for meetings with his U.S. counterpart, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill.

Japan and North Korea announced they will hold meetings in Hanoi next week aimed at restarting a stalled process of normalizing relations. Japan says there will be no progress toward that end until North Korea provides more information on its abduction of dozens of Japanese citizens in the 1970's and '80's.

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