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Pyongyang Proposes New Reconciliation Talks with S. Korea - 2002-07-25

South Korean officials say rival North Korea has expressed regret for a deadly naval clash, which raised tensions on the divided peninsula for nearly a month. The North is now proposing the two sides hold a new round of talks aimed at reconciliation.

South Korea's Unification Ministry says North Korea sent a letter expressing regret and suggesting joint efforts to prevent another military skirmish between the two Koreas.

The communist North also proposes working-level talks early next month to discuss resuming stalled reconciliation projects, including family reunions and the restoration of railroad links.

Pyongyang's conciliatory gesture is a dramatic turnaround from the verbal attacks that have followed the June 29 sea battle.

North and South Korea have traded blame for starting the 20-minute skirmish, which sank a South Korean patrol boat and killed five South Korean sailors. The North says it also suffered casualties, but has not said how many died.

The maritime clash was the worst between the two sides in three years. In 1999, a series of North Korean border violations sparked the first naval battle. One North Korean ship sank and 30 sailors were reportedly killed.

As late as Wednesday, Pyongyang warned of renewed clashes unless a disputed sea border at the heart of the naval battle is redrawn. The North does not recognize the maritime border known as the Northern Limit Line. The United Nations drew the line after the Korean War ended in 1953 in a military truce rather than a peace treaty.

South Korean officials say they are viewing the letter from Pyongyang as an apology, which could revive inter-Korean relations. The government in Seoul says it will thoroughly assess the North Korean proposal to resume talks in the North in August.

The development could be a major boost for South Korean President Kim Dae-jung. For weeks, the president, who leaves office in February, has been stung by criticism that his four-year effort to engage the North left South Korea vulnerable to attack.

His so-called "sunshine policy" toward North Korea has stalled since early last year, partly because of tension between Pyongyang and Washington, which is South Korea's closest ally.