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Koreas Hold Formal Talks on Disputed Sea Border - 2004-05-26

Senior military officers from North and South Korea have met to reduce tensions along their disputed maritime border. Working-level talks continued after the generals and admirals met in the morning.

The unprecedented one-day meeting at North Korea's Mount Kumgang resort focused avoiding armed clashes along the western sea border during the current fishing season.

Going into the meeting, North Korean Major General Ahn Ik San said he hoped the talks would go smoothly. General Ahn says his country has high expectations because this is the first time he and his colleagues are to meet with their counterparts from the South, so he wants both sides to do their best.

But South Korean officials say the high-level talks ended inconclusively after 90 minutes, although lower-level officials continued to meet through the day.

South Korea's Defense Ministry says a second high-level meeting will be held June 3 at the South Korean resort of Mount Seolak.

South Korea proposed a hotline telephone link between the two Koreas and shared radio frequencies to improve communications at sea.

North Korea does not recognize the Yellow Sea border set by the United Nations after the end of the Korean War, a half century ago. Pyongyang says the real border is farther south.

The Korean navies engaged in gun battles along the disputed border in 1999 and 2002, with casualties on both sides. The clashes erupted as warships tried to protect their crab fishing boats operating along the poorly marked maritime border.

"About this time of year, May and June, there are these delicious crabs that both North and South like to eat, so they do always have some problems," said Professor Jon Van Dyke, an Asia maritime law expert at the University of Hawaii. "They need to work out some modus vivendi, some rules of engagement up there whereby they will sort of co-exist."

The crabs also are a valuable source of foreign currency for cash-strapped North Korea, which exports some of its catch.

There has been concern that clashes this year could harm the delicate international effort to peacefully resolve the standoff over North Korea's nuclear weapons programs.

Former South Korean Ambassador Ro Myu Gong views the talks as the beginning of a long process. "It is a starting point actually because we have been proposing these military talks between the two parties for many years as part of the confidence building measures," he said.

South Korea's unification minister, Jeong Se-hyun, told reporters Tuesday he would consider the talks a success even if the two sides only agreed to continue discussions.

South Korea has nearly 700,000 soldiers, complemented by 37,000 American troops. North Korea has more than a million people under arms, making it the world's fifth-largest military.

The two countries are technically at war, as no peace treaty was signed when fighting stopped in the Korean War in 1953.