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S. Korea Dismisses North's Missile Test as Routine, Begins Talks


South Korea's government minister in charge of policy toward North Korea has dismissed recent missile tests by the North as routine events that pose no serious threat. Seoul has begun working-level military and economic talks with Pyongyang in the meantime, but is still withholding a massive shipment of food aid and material support until the North fulfills its nuclear weapons promises. VOA's Kurt Achin reports from Seoul.

South Korean Unification Minister Lee Jae-joung said Friday that North Korea's firing of short-range missiles off its coast this week is not a serious provocation. He says the North Korean launches were part of a short-range missile test that occurs annually, and comes as no surprise. As such, he says, the tests do not intensify tensions on the Korean peninsula.

The two Koreas remain technically at war. A 1953 armistice halted fighting between the countries after North Korea invaded the South three years earlier. However, a historic North-South summit in 2000 ushered in an era of increased contacts and cooperation between the two.

Seoul and Pyongyang began two sets of working-level talks this week. In Panmunjom, the border-straddling village where the 1953 armistice was signed, military officials began discussions Friday mainly on avoiding North-South naval conflicts. In the North Korean city of Kaesong, where South Korea operates a major industrial park, economic talks got underway Thursday to discuss future investment by the South in the North.

Minister Lee says inter-Korean cooperation is making progress despite the North's test of a nuclear weapon last October. However, he says South Korea will continue to withhold a massive shipment of rice and light industrial goods until the North carries out a promise it made in February to start dismantling its nuclear programs.

Lee says North Korea is well aware of why the food shipment is being delayed. He says the rice "loan" - as South Korea describes the planned shipment - will proceed when the situation improves.

In an address Friday to international reporters, Lee, speaking English, said South Korea shares Washington's position that nuclear diplomacy and inter-Korean cooperation should go hand in hand.

"The six-party talks and the inter-Korean dialogue should be promoted in parallel, so that each dialogue track can carry out its given role and mutually complement each other in a positive cycle," he said.

North Korea told South Korea, China, Russia, the United States and Japan in February that it would shut down its main nuclear reactor by mid-April. That deadline is long past, and the reactor has not been closed.

Pyongyang refuses to take action until 25 million dollars of its money is transferred from a Macau bank. The United States originally said those funds derived mainly from illegal activities including counterfeiting and money laundering, and it blacklisted the Macau bank.

The U.S. Treasury Department has now removed its objection to the transfer of these particular funds. But no other bank will carry out the transfer for fear of violating U.S. banking laws.

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun has not ruled out a summit meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il before Mr. Roh leaves office next January. However, senior South Korean officials says Seoul's focus for now is mainly on making progress on the nuclear issue.

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