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North, South Korean Officials Meet at Highest Level Since 2000


South Korea's Prime Minister Lee Hae-chan (r) talks with North Korea's No.2 leader Kim Yong Nam
North and South Korean officials have had their highest face-to-face contact since 2000 on the sidelines of the Asian-African Summit in Jakarta. The officials discussed a wide range of issues, but did not announce any breakthroughs on the dispute over North Korea's nuclear weapons programs.

South Korean Prime Minister Lee Hae-chan and North Korea's number-two leader, Kim Yong Nam, met on Friday and Saturday at the Asian-African summit in Jakarta. The two meetings were the highest-level contacts between the two governments since South Korean President Kim Dae-jung met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il five years ago.

News reports quoted South Korean and Indonesian diplomats as saying the two men agreed to restart inter-Korean talks on economic cooperation and infrastructure. Those talks have been on hold since last year, when South Korea angered Pyongyang by airlifting 460 North Korean defectors from another country to Seoul.

The two Korean leaders also reportedly discussed the North Korea's nuclear weapons programs. The North's delegation, however, did not commit to returning to talks on ending those programs.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, also at the Jakarta summit, expressed hope the talks would resume soon.

"On the North Korean issue - attempts are being made to resolve the issue diplomatically through the six-party talks," Mr. Annan said. "I know attempts are being made to bring everybody back to the table."

South Korea, the United States, China, Japan and Russia have tried since last June to coax the North back to the talks. Timothy Savage, who monitors the nuclear issue in Seoul for the European research group, International Crisis Group, is skeptical the Jakarta meetings will lead to any breakthroughs.

"If the North Koreans want to come back to the six-party talks, I think they'll come back," he said. "If they don't want to come back, then they're not going to come back. I don't know what South Korea's going to be able to say to them that's going to persuade them one way or the other."

North Korea says it possesses nuclear weapons, and intends to build more, despite having signed several agreements in the past to not acquire such weapons.

The chief U.S. delegate on the nuclear issue, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, will be in Asia to confer in the coming week with South Korean, Japanese and Chinese officials on ways to get the talks restarted.

There were reports Friday in U.S. media that Washington has seen indications Pyongyang may be preparing for its first nuclear test. Washington has reportedly sent messages to Beijing, urging China to dissuade North Korea from a test.

Experts say a North Korean test would be very likely anger China, its main ally and economic patron. They also say it would make it very difficult for the South to maintain its current policy of engagement and cooperation with the North.

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