Rival Koreas gear up for talks this week to ease tension

Monday, 7 February 2011 00:01 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Reuters) - North and South Korean military officers will meet this week at a truce village on their heavily fortified border in a test of a pledge by the North to ease tension after a major security crisis last year.

Regional powers have nudged the rivals to defuse the crisis and restart international talks over the North’s nuclear programme. The two Koreas are still technically at war because an armistice not a treaty ended the 1950-53 Korean War.

The meeting will be the first dialogue between them since last September, and the first since tension peaked on the peninsula late last year.

Last March, South Korea accused the North of sinking one of its navy ships killing 46 sailors.

Then in November, the North bombarded a South Korean island in disputed waters off the west coast, leading to an angry exchange of threats and a risk of major conflict that rattled financial markets.

The two sides agreed last week to hold a preliminary round of military talks on Feb. 8 to set the time and agenda for higher-level talks, possibly between their defence ministers. South Korea said a formal apology for what it saw as the blatant North Korean provocations last year was not needed for it to consider going ahead with the higher-level talks.

“You don’t have colonels talking about apologising,” a South Korean official said, referring to the officers who will meet on Tuesday.

North Korea threatened nuclear war on the peninsula at the height of tension but in a sharp change of tack, it has repeatedly called for dialogue with the South since January.

Some analysts say the about face is an indication that the North is suffering from years of international sanctions and a cut in aid from the South.

The South has said it wants to see whether the North is sincere about reducing tension and agreed to the meetings on the condition that they discuss the navy ship sinking and island bombardment.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said last week he was willing to consider meeting the North’s leader at a summit in a softening of the South’s tone after months of tough talk that included a vow to retaliate if the North attacked again.

Lee cut off a decade of unconditional aid to the North when he took office in 2008, angering the North, which analysts said had come to depend on his liberal predecessors’ policy of using aid to keep their unpredictable neighbour engaged.

Lee said he had high expectations that the North would abandon the tactic of staging hostile acts to raise tension, then seeking dialogue with the wealthy South to win concessions.