N. Korea, U.N. Command Agree to Work toward General-level Talks
SEOUL (Yonhap) -- Military officers from North Korea and the U.S.-led United Nations Command (UNC) agreed "in principle" last week to hold general-level talks to discuss the fatal sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan in the Yellow Sea.
An official for the UNC said on July 15 that the broad agreement was reached at the colonel-level talks held for the first time since the March 26 sinking of the warship, which is blamed on North Korea. It came two days after the working-level meeting was postponed by the North, citing administrative reasons.
The UNC representatives from its Military Armistice Commission met their counterparts from the (North) Korean People's Army Panmunjom Mission of North Korea at the truce village of Panmunjom at 10 a.m.
The colonel-level meeting "lasted for approximately an hour and a half, with both sides offering proposals for general officer talks. Both sides agreed to confirm details of the proposed follow-up talks after consulting with their respective superiors," the UNC said in a press statement.
"After consulting with their superiors, each side will decide whether to directly hold general-level talks or a new round of colonel-level meeting for more discussions," the UNC official said. "It means that the two sides agreed in principle to hold general-level talks."
No date has been set for the next meeting, the UNC official said. A few days later, however, the UNC and North Korea were said to have held their second round of colonel-level talks on July 20 for further discussion on the agenda items for the general-level talks.
The meeting was aimed at preparing for the higher-level talks over the sinking, which a Seoul-led multinational investigation concluded in May was caused by a North Korean torpedo attack.
Pyongyang has denied responsibility for the attack and threatened that any punishment would lead to war.
The July 15 meeting that was originally scheduled for July 13 was abruptly called off by the North just before it was set to begin, citing "administrative reasons." Later that day, the North proposed to reschedule the meeting for July 15, and the UNC accepted the offer.
The latest colonel-level meeting was led by UNC Col. Kurt Taylor and Col. Pak Ki-yong of the North.
Pyongyang initially rejected the colonel-level meeting with the UNC to discuss the issue within the framework of the armistice agreement that ended the Korean War, but changed its stance just ahead of the U.N. Security Council's move on the sinking of the South Korean warship that killed 46 South Korean sailors.
After a month of tug-of-war, the U.N. Security Council adopted a presidential statement on July 9 condemning the sinking, but stopped short of explicitly blaming the North.
The 15-member Council issued the presidential statement after Seoul referred the case to the Security Council on June 4 to stave off any further provocations from the North.
Separate from the multinational probe, the UNC investigated whether the sinking violated the 1953 armistice agreement. Results of the UNC probe have not been released.
A UNC official said on July 19 that the UNC proposed its working-level talks with North Korea, slated for July 20, be rescheduled until after a high-level meeting of officials from South Korea and the United States.
A new date for the colonel-level meeting was not immediately proposed, according to the UNC official.
The UNC has requested the delay due to the so-called "two plus two" meeting between the foreign and defense ministers of South Korea and the U.S. set for July 21.
On July 21, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates met their South Korean counterparts in Seoul and were expected to announce a series of measures, including joint military exercises, and ways to strengthen security against the North.
The North's state media reported after the July 15 colonel-level talks that the country had demanded that its own inspectors be allowed to come to Seoul to verify evidence presented by a multinational investigation that incriminated it.
Seoul has dismissed the demand, saying the issue should be handled within the framework of the Korean armistice agreement that ended the 1950-53 Korean War.
Since 1998, the UNC and North Korea have held the general-level talks as a channel to ease tensions. If the two sides agree to hold such talks, they will be the 17th of their kind, the UNC said.
The two sides held their last general-level talks in March, 2009. At the previous meeting held for the first time in nearly seven years, North Korea used the rare military talks to condemn the joint annual South Korea-U.S. military exercises.
In the talks held at the truce village of Panmunjom that lasted a little more than 30 minutes, the North demanded South Korea and the U.S. cancel their joint annual drill and repeatedly expressed its fury over the allies' Key Resolve and Foal Eagle exercises scheduled for March 9-20, 2009.