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Increasing Concern North Korea Will Cancel Scheduled Talks With South - 2003-04-04


Concerns are growing in Seoul that proposed talks with North Korea, set for next week in Pyonyang, will be canceled because the North is protesting Seoul's support for the U.S.-led war in Iraq. The Seoul government hopes to use the discussions to ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

The ministerial level talks, the highest official communication between the two sides, are scheduled to start Monday in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang. They are to be the first talks between the communist North and the South Korean government of President Roh Moo-hyun, who took office in February.

President Roh has urged the North Koreans not to abandon the meeting. He says North Korea should "sincerely talk" with South Korea. That message was conveyed to North Korea in a telephone message at the border truce village of Panmunjom on Wednesday. No official confirmation has yet been received from North Korea, suggesting the talks might not go ahead.

Seoul had hoped to use the talks as an opportunity to persuade Pyongyang to scrap its controversial nuclear programs.

If the talks do not go ahead, it will be seen as an expression of Pyongyang's anger at South Korea's decision to send 700 non-combat troops to support the U.S. led war in Iraq. North Korea has condemned the South's decision to dispatch the troops and has praised the anti-war demonstrations seen on the streets of Seoul in recent days.

Official North Korean broadcasts call the troop deployment a "criminal act" that "further imperils the situation on the Korean peninsula."

Since the United States said last year that North Korea was working on a banned nuclear weapons program, relations on the peninsula have been tense. Washington and its allies have been pushing Pyongyang to give up the program.

North Korea, however, has withdrawn from a nuclear non-proliferation treaty and restarted an idled nuclear plant. It has also test-fired missiles into the waters around the Korean Peninsula.

North Korea says the United States plans to attack it, a charge Washington has repeatedly denied. Many political analysts who study North Korea say Pyongyang may fear that a U.S. attack will come after Washington has toppled the government of Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

Maurice Strong, a United Nations special envoy to North Korea, said Thursday the dispute with the United States over Pyongyang's weapons program could develop into war. He said neither side wants war, but that the dispute could escalate.