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Inter-Korean Talks on Joint Projects Overshadowed by North's Weapons Programs - 2003-07-09

A North Korean delegation has arrived in Seoul for Cabinet-level talks with South Korean officials. The meeting's official focus is on joint projects, but the talks are expected to be overshadowed by concerns about the North's nuclear weapons programs.

The meeting in Seoul, which is the highest channel of dialogue between the two Koreas, is the 11th round since the historic summit in 2000 between North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung.

The two delegations aim primarily to promote bilateral programs, such as tourism, transport links and reunions of families divided by the border across the Korean Peninsula. But the standoff over North Korea's nuclear weapons programs is expected to take center stage.

Five North Korean negotiators arrived in South Korea Wednesday, and will begin the four-day meeting with the South's delegation on Thursday. The meeting is slated to wrap up Saturday.

The North Koreans traveled to the South through China, where South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun is on a state visit, primarily to discuss policy on North Korea's nuclear ambitions.

Unification Minister Jeong Se-hyun is leading the South Korean delegation. He said his government will push the North Koreans to resolve the nuclear tensions and participate in talks with the United States, Japan, China, South Korea and possibly Russia.

He told South Korea's KBS television network that the South's delegation will raise the issue and will not offer any new joint projects.

In the last round of meetings in April the North resisted discussing the nuclear issue, repeating its view that the matter can be resolved only through direct talks with the United States.

The dispute began last October, when U.S. officials said Pyongyang admitted to having a secret nuclear weapons program in violation of international accords.

North Korea has since ousted United Nations nuclear inspectors and quit the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Washington thinks the communist North may already have one or two nuclear bombs and is capable of manufacturing more within months.