After a series of calls for unconditional talks, North Korea offered Thursday to hold high-level defense talks with Seoul to discuss its November shelling of the South's Yeonpyeong Island and the March sinking of the warship Cheonan.
South Korea accepted the proposal, saying it wants Pyongyang to apologize for the two deadly incidents and pledge never to repeat such attacks. Details of the defense talks will be discussed in a working-level meeting, and the South plans to propose a specific date for the working-level talks next week.
The North's apology for the attacks and its promise not to repeat such provocations have been among the three key conditions that the South says Pyongyang must fulfill before the two sides can improve relations. A third demand has been that the North demonstrate its denuclearization commitment through action.
"Our position is that separate high-level talks are essential to check sincerity about denuclearization and we will propose" such talks, Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan said at a New Year's reception for foreign diplomats stationed in Seoul.
Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan (third from L) hosts a New Year's reception for foreign diplomats stationed in Seoul on Jan. 21. (Yonhap)
Should the North's seriousness about denuclearization be confirmed through inter-Korean talks, it will have a positive effect on restarting the stalled six-nation nuclear talks involving the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the U.S., Kim said.
"If North Korea demonstrates sincerity through specific action and then six-party talks resume, our government will seek a comprehensive resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue" through its "grand bargain" idea of a one-time major deal of swapping denuclearization and concessions, he said.
"North Korea should decide on its own whether it will choose a dead-ended road of confrontation and enmity or a road of peace and prosperity," he said.
Tension on the Korean Peninsula spiked in November of last year after North Korea shelled the South's border island of Yeonpyeong, killing four people, including two civilians, and revealed that the regime is running a uranium enrichment facility.
Uranium, if highly enriched, can be weapons-grade, giving Pyongyang a second way of building nuclear weapons after its existing program based on plutonium, with which the communist nation conducted two nuclear test explosions in 2006 and 2009.
Since the start of this year, North Korea has stepped up peace overtures and called for unconditional talks with the South, a move that fits the typical pattern of Pyongyang's behavior of raising tensions with provocations and then calling for dialogue to extract concessions.
Pyongyang's offer of high-level defense talks came hours after U.S. President Barack and Chinese President Hu Jintao held a summit in Washington, calling for "sincere and constructive" inter-Korean dialogue while expressing "concern" about North Korea's uranium enrichment program.