Koreas Announce Resumption of High-Level Meetings

The North Korean nuclear weapons deal reached this week in Beijing has provided momentum for the North and South Korea to resume high-level contacts. The two Koreas now plan a high-level exchange in the North Korean capital within weeks. VOA's Kurt Achin has more from Beijing.

North and South Korea have wasted no time in building on the nuclear deal agreed to by six nations here in the Chinese capital. Following consultations in the North Korean border city of Kaesong, South Korean Assistant Unification Minister Lee Kwan-se said Thursday that suspended inter-Korean talks would resume.

He says there is willingness to improve the inter-Korean relationship, so the two Koreas will hold minister-level meetings in Pyongyang from February 27 to March 2.

South Korean Unification Minister Lee Jae-joung, who will represent Seoul at the talks, has made no secret of South Korea's interest in resuming emergency food and fertilizer assistance to the severely impoverished North.

Seoul halted regular shipments last July, after North Korea test-fired a series of missiles despite warnings from South Korea and the international community. The North responded by suspending inter-Korean talks and scheduled reunions between family members separated by the Korean divide.

South Korea kept its food embargo in place after North Korea tested its first nuclear weapon in October. Seoul also backed United Nations punitive sanctions against Pyongyang.

South Korea, the United States, China, Russia, Japan, and North Korea agreed Tuesday on a list of preliminary steps aimed at ending the North's nuclear weapons programs. Now the two Koreas are expected to devote special attention to resuming food aid and restarting a host of inter-Korean projects such as family reunions and cross-border railways.

The deal agreed to here in Beijing exchanges a shutdown of North Korea's main nuclear facility at Yongbyon for delivery of 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil within 60 days. Far more ambitious targets toward scrapping the North's weapons are to be set out in future phases of the agreement.

Ryoo Kihl-jae, Dean of Seoul's Kyungnam Graduate School of North Korean studies, says South Korea views it as a matter of strategic importance to ensure that severe economic deprivation does not destabilize North Korea. However, he says South Korean patience for subsidizing the North does have its limits.

He says if there is trouble in implementing the current North Korean nuclear deal, South Korean political support for engagement with the North may suffer.

South Korea's main opposition party, whose candidates enjoy a wide lead in early polling for this December's presidential election, says the upcoming North-South ministerial should focus primarily on ensuring North Korea adheres to the terms of the Beijing nuclear deal.

Opposition politicians are concerned that South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun may gain political support by hosting an early summit with the North.