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Stalled Inter-Korean Peace Process to Resume - 2002-04-06

South Korea's presidential envoy says North Korea has agreed to revive the stalled inter-Korea peace process and resume talks with the United States. The comments by the South Korean envoy followed four days of talks in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang.

Lim Dong-won, South Korea's special envoy, returned home from the North Saturday with news his four-day diplomatic mission was a success. Mr. Lim told reporters in Seoul that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il had agreed to re-engage in the two-year old peace process with South Korea and he would be willing to restart dialogue with the United States.

A joint statement issued in Pyongyang states that both sides will resume a series of contacts agreed to at an historic summit in June 2000. They include regular governmental meetings on tourism and economic projects, work on connecting the countries with a rail line, and more reunions of families separated by the division of the Korean Peninsula.

The two Koreas have been technically at war since fighting ended in 1953 in an armed truce rather than a peace treaty. So all these projects are aimed at building confidence between Pyongyang and Seoul as they work toward eventual reunification.

Professor Lee Chung-min at Seoul's Yonsei University said the key test will be whether Kim Jong Il will agree to a long awaited second summit with South Korean President Kim Dae-jung. "Obviously all this is leading up toward a return summit. I don't think Kim Jong Il will bite the bullet and come down to South Korea this year given the whole year is filled up with key political elections," he said.

Progress toward reconciliation between North and South Korea stalled after the Bush administration took office and ordered a policy review toward communist North Korea. Prospects for further cooperation dimmed when Mr. Bush earlier this year grouped North Korea, with Iran and Iraq, in what he called an axis of evil bent on developing weapons of mass destruction.

Pyongyang's apparent willingness to start talking with the United States again comes as a surprise to some analysts. Lim Dong-won says his understanding is that North Korea will agree to meet with a U.S. envoy, most likely a former U.S. ambassador to Seoul.

Professor Lee said he expects the path to new talks will be difficult. "So Kim Jong Il wants at least to give the impression that he is in so-called virtual dialogue mode," he said. "But more than anything else, he wants to know for sure what the conditions are that the Bush administration is setting down to make sure he will be able to enter the talks with Washington without losing face."

Washington has offered to hold talks without conditions so they could include not only U.S. concerns about Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program, but also North Korea's concerns about 37,000 U.S. troops protecting South Korea.