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N. Korea Still Committed to Reconciliation With South - 2002-07-04

North Korea reiterated Thursday its commitment to pursue reconciliation and unification with South Korea. The statement follows Saturday's deadly naval skirmish between the two countries the most serious clash in three years.

In a government memorandum carried by North Korea's official news agency Thursday, the communist country vows to make every effort to promote dialogue and cooperation. The statement refers to what are known as the July 4 joint statement and the June 15 joint declaration.

On July 4, 1972, the two Koreas promised to work toward a peaceful reunification of the divided peninsula. They signed a follow-up agreement on June 15, 2000, at the end of a historic summit between the leaders of the two governments in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang.

The North has issued similar statements in the past to mark the July 4 anniversary. But this year's comes at the lowest point in Korean relations since the 2000 summit.

Thursday's statement made no mention of last week's naval clash off the west coast of the Korean peninsula in which four South Korean sailors were killed and 19 others wounded. The government in Seoul says about 30 North Korean sailors died during the 20-minute battle.

Both sides blame each other for initiating the attack. In Seoul Thursday, several thousand angry South Korean army veterans and supporters protested in the capital, calling for the overthrow of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-Il. They also demanded an end to Seoul's policy of engagement with the North.

Two years ago, South Korean President Kim Dae-jung won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to promote his conciliatory "sunshine policy" toward North Korea. On Tuesday, he assured the nation that if necessary, South Korea would again vigorously defend against any North Korean aggression.

President Kim says if there is a war, South Korea has 600,000 soldiers, 50,000 U.S. soldiers, and millions of civilians willing and able to defend the South. But he emphasizes that war is not what South Korea wants and reaffirms his commitment to finding a peaceful solution.

The two Koreas remain technically at war as the Korean War ended in 1953 in a truce, not a peace treaty. A recent series of organized reunions of families split up by the war raised hopes that the two sides could eventually reunify without bloodshed.

The naval firefight, however, has left most South Koreans outraged. South Korea's agriculture ministry is said to be considering suspending aid shipments to the famine-ravaged North because of overwhelming public anger.