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    North Korea Ignores South Korean Criticism

    South Korea used the first day of inter-Korean ministerial talks to chastise the North for its test launch of missiles last week.  But North Korean delegates brushed off the criticism, and instead renewed requests for massive transfers of unconditional food aid for the North's shattered economy.

    As ministerial-level talks between North and South Korea got underway in the South Korean city of Busan, Seoul's chief of North Korean policy admonished Pyongyang for its launch of at least seven missiles a week ago.

    Lee Kwan-se, spokesman for the South Korean Unification Ministry, says Unification Minister Lee Jeong-seok told the North Koreans events could rapidly spin out of control if North Korea launches more missiles.  He says Seoul's delegation stressed that Pyongyang should return as soon as possible to six-nation talks aimed at ending the North's nuclear weapons capabilities.

    But Spokesman Lee says the North Koreans did not respond to Seoul's criticism about the missiles.  Instead, he says, Pyongyang's delegates repeated a request for South Korea to provide 500,000 tons of rice to the impoverished North.

    He says the North Koreans even went a step further, saying Pyongyang's military preparedness was in South Korea's interest.

    He says North Korea defended its "Songun," or "Army First" policy, under which military expenditures take up the overwhelming share of North Korea's tiny national budget.  He says North Korea's delegation argued a militarily strong North Korean also helps to protect South Korea, a claim the South Korean side has rejected out of hand.

    A furious round of diplomacy aimed at persuading North Korea to return to the negotiations over its nuclear weapons has been in progress this week.  In September, Pyongyang promised South Korea, Japan, Russia, China and the United States it would begin the process of dismantling its nuclear arsenal and production facilities. 

    Pyongyang has since boycotted a continuation of those talks in protest of financial sanctions imposed by Washington.  Washington says the sanctions are aimed at blocking North Korean money laundering and counterfeiting, and are separate from the nuclear-weapons issue.

    China sent a high-level delegation to Pyongyang this week as part of the diplomatic offensive to bring the North back to the talks.  But Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, the chief U.S. envoy to the six-party talks, said in Beijing that while the Chinese had tried hard, the North Korean response had been "discouraging."

    The inter-Korean ministerial talks are scheduled to continue until Friday.  

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