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South Korea Optimistic Over North Offer to Resume Talks - 2002-07-26

South Korea says it believes the North's surprising offer Thursday to resume stalled talks is meaningful and could revive hopes for reconciliation.

South Korea's top Cabinet ministers met Friday to study North Korea's offer to hold new talks next month. The offer took Seoul by surprise Thursday because relations with the North have been extremely tense since the two sides had a deadly naval clash in June.

Four South Korean sailors were killed in a 20-minute gun battle near their disputed maritime border in the Yellow Sea. North Korea has yet to reveal how many sailors it lost in the incident. Pyongyang, which has never recognized the sea boundary because it was imposed by the United Nations after the Korean War, also warned new clashes could take place. Each side blamed the other for the naval battle, until this week.

In a dramatic and unexplained shift, North Korea sent a letter Thursday expressing regret, and suggesting that working-level talks be held in the North next month.

Friday, South Korea's defense minister sounded a note of caution, saying that North Korea's navy is still on combat status in the Yellow Sea. Still, a South Korean presidential spokeswoman called the North's letter significant, and said it could lead to a breakthrough in stalled reconciliation talks.

This could be good news for President Kim Dae-jung, whose policy of engaging the communist North fell apart over the past year, amid growing tensions between Pyongyang and Seoul's main ally, the United States. South Korea's opposition has criticized the president for appeasing the North, and hopes to capitalize on the issue in this year's presidential elections.

Hopes for reconciliation reached a peak two years ago, when the Korean leaders held their first-ever summit, and pledged to work toward reunification, after more than 50 years of division. The two countries then agreed on a series of confidence-building measures that the North has been slow to implement, or ignored altogether. Pyongyang cut off the dialogue last November, and tensions have been growing ever since.

Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov told reporters in Seoul Friday that his country wants to help ease tensions on the Korean peninsula. He says Moscow has solid relations with North Korea, and, therefore, can play a constructive role. The Russian diplomat will travel to Pyongyang on Sunday.