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South, North Korea Try to Revive Stalled Cabinet-Level Talks - 2002-08-02

A South Korean delegation has traveled to North Korea to restart stalled cabinet-level talks. The delegation faces the difficult task of trying to push the talks forward while overcoming lingering suspicions over a June 29 naval clash.

The five-member South Korean mission, led by Assistant Unification Minister Lee Bong-jo, left by ferry Friday for the North's east coast. The delegates are expected to meet their North Korean counterparts at the Diamond Mountain coastal resort near the South Korean border for three days of discussions.

Before leaving for North Korea, Mr. Lee told reporters he felt a "historical responsibility" to be leading the delegation, whose main focus is to revive inter-Korean talks suspended for the past nine months.

The South's agenda also includes the discussion of pending issues such as resuming reunions of families separated since the Korean War, and restoring a severed cross-border railway.

But South Korea is also expected to press its communist neighbor to accept full responsibility for June's sea battle, which killed five South Korean and about 13 North Korean sailors.

Last week, Pyongyang unexpectedly expressed regret for the incident. That cleared the way for setting up the three-day working-level talks. But Pyongyang has not accepted blame as demanded by the South Korean government.

Another factor that could complicate negotiations are the continued verbal attacks from North Korea's state-run media, which, since the naval clash, have been routinely denouncing the South and its main ally, the United States.

But the talks may also give South Korea the first opportunity to ask about North Korean moves to introduce elements of a market economy. South Korean news reports say Pyongyang has recently raised prices, rents and salaries and scrapped its rice-rationing system. For decades, the North has relied on rationing to feed its people.

A North Korean expert, Professor Kwon Man-hak at Kyunghee University in South Korea, said he believes the impoverished North's apparent move toward capitalism reflects its economic desperation. "In the 1990s, they recorded minus economic growth," he said. "So, at this point, the socialist system won't revive their economy, so they have to resort to a market economy, even if they don't want to."

North Korea's foreign minister, Paek Nam Sun, met U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell Wednesday in Brunei, where both were attending a regional security forum. After the meeting, Mr. Paek announced that the stalled talks between North Korea and the United States would resume.

Some analysts speculate that Pyongyang is courting the United States and South Korea partly to get the aid it needs to continue with its economic experiment.

The Koreas are still technically at war because the Korean War ended in 1953 in a military truce, not a peace treaty.