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Koreas Resume Economic Talks Briefly - 2003-05-22

Delegates from North and South Korea met briefly for economic talks, but it is unclear if they made any progress in easing the dispute over the North's nuclear ambitions. The talks stalled two days ago after North Korea made threatening comments to the South's delegates.

South Korean reporters say delegates spent only about 40 minutes at talks in Pyongyang Thursday. The two sides did not make any progress toward clarifying North Korea's threat on Tuesday of an "unspeakable disaster" if Seoul confronts Pyongyang.

North Korea made the threat as an angry response to the recent show of unity between South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun and the United States. South Korea is demanding Pyongyang apologize, or at least explain the threat.

The issue caused talks to stall, and the delegates did not meet at all Wednesday. The talks began Tuesday morning.

South Korea also accuses the North of publishing the threat despite a previously agreed news blackout.

The two sides did agree to study each other's positions and meet again at a future date. On Tuesday, Pyongyang's delegates rebuffed the South's efforts to talk about the North's nuclear weapons programs.

North Korea insists it will only discuss the issue with the United States, which said last year that the North had admitted having an illegal program to build nuclear bombs.

South Korea, however, says the nuclear issue must be discussed along with economic aid programs to help the impoverished North.

South Korea's tougher stance on relations with the North got a vote of support from the head of the United Nation's nuclear oversight agency on Thursday.

In an editorial published in The Wall Street Journal, International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohammad ElBaradei says the world must send a clear signal to North Korea it "won't be blackmailed through nuclear intimidation."

Mr. ElBaradei says legitimizing North Korea's nuclear weapons would send a dangerous signal to the rest of the world.

The crisis is taking an economic toll. South Korea's Finance Ministry said Thursday it will put a $1 billion bond issue on hold until it can be more certain which way North-South relations will go.

South Korea's central bank reported that economic growth weakened slightly for the first time in two years. And President Roh says he is taking a three-day vacation, after publicly questioning his own competence to fulfill his duties.