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Two Koreas to Meet at North's Request

Senior officials from North and South Korea will meet next week for the first time in almost a year to discuss various issues, including the North's nuclear weapons program. Diplomats meanwhile, continue to hope they can persuade the North to give up any nuclear weapons it might already possess.

After weeks of bellicose statements by North Korea, the first hint of a meeting came Saturday morning, from the North Korean official news agency. The agency said Pyongyang had wired the South Korean Unification Ministry to request a meeting, in order to "put the inter-Korean relations on a normal track."

South Korea, which has been hoping since last year to reactivate inter-Korean talks, responded quickly. Vice Unification Minister Rhee Bong-jo told reporters the meetings would be held next Monday and Tuesday, in the North Korean city of Kaesong.

Mr. Rhee said a range of issues would be discussed, including Seoul's position on "the North Korean nuclear issue", a matter also on the minds of officials in Washington, Tokyo, Beijing and Moscow.

Lee Sang-hyun, director of the security studies program at Seoul's Sejong Institute, says the nuclear issue will certainly come up. But he warns that the request for talks does not necessarily signal a willingness by Pyongyang to discuss its nuclear program seriously.

North Korea last year asked Seoul for 500,000 tons of fertilizer, a request the South Koreans put on hold. Mr. Lee says Pyongyang might now need that fertilizer on an urgent basis.

"This time of year - perhaps this time - they need fertilizer. Given that, economic necessity, or urgency, may be one factor for North Korea to propose this meeting," he said.

Christopher Hill
However, the request came as Washington's ambassador to stalled six-party talks on the nuclear crisis, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, arrived in Seoul to confer on ways to bring Pyongyang back to the negotiating table.

Mr. Hill told reporters that logic dictated the North Koreans would rejoin the negotiations.

"There's a very powerful logic to their coming to the table and agreeing on proposals which truly address their needs. I cannot see how nuclear weapons in any way addresses any real need of theirs," he said.

Pyongyang claims it already possesses nuclear weapons. The United States, South Korea, Japan, China and Russia are asking the North to give up those weapons in return for economic and political aid.

One complicating factor: nobody knows for sure if the North really has the weapons, or is only bluffing. Washington claims to have detected signs Pyongyang is preparing to conduct a nuclear test, something it has apparently never done before, but even that is open to debate.

Mr. Lee of the Sejong Institute questions whether a test is in the works, but he says it would be dangerous to discount Pyongyang's claim that it has the bomb.

"I believe, even though we don't have any concrete evidence, it is highly likely that they have actually built a bomb. I believe that should be the approach to North Korea in the future," he said.

Three rounds of six-party talks have been held in Beijing, but the last round took place almost a year ago, and North Korea has refused to participate ever since.