South Korea prompts North to return to nuclear talks

South Korea on Wednesday urged North Korea to return to international talks on the communist nation's nuclear weapons program as soon as possible, during high-level negotiations between the divided Koreas aimed at boosting reconciliation between the longtime foes. Unification Minister Chung Dong-young, heading the South Korean delegation to the Cabinet-level talks, "urged early resumption of the six-party talks," said Kim Chun-sig, South Korean spokesman. This week's meeting between the Koreas on the southern resort island of Jeju, the 17th such negotiations, lasts through Friday.

Worries over a resolution of the nuclear dispute have grown since the latest spat between North Korea and the United States over U.S. sanctions against the communist nation for alleged illegal activities, including money-laundering and counterfeiting, allegations the North calls "sheer lies." North Korea said last week it won't return to the nuclear talks until Washington lifts the sanctions, but the United States insists the issue is a matter of law unrelated to the nuclear talks.

The conflict has led to a standstill on implementing a breakthrough Sept. 19 agreement where the North agreed to give up its nuclear programs in exchange for aid and security guarantees.

On Wednesday at the inter-Korean talks, Kim said the South "stressed maintaining the framework of the Sept. 19 joint statement was most effective for realizing common benefits."

The North Korean delegation, led by Kwon Ho Ung, a senior Cabinet counselor, didn't directly respond to the South Korean comments, but "listened seriously," Kim said.

On Tuesday, South Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Song Min-soon, Seoul's chief negotiator at the six-nation North Korea nuclear talks, attended a welcoming dinner ahead of the formal talks in a show of South Korea's commitment to bringing back the North to the nuclear negotiations. "Talking face-to-face is the best method of dialogue," Song told reporters.

Just after the inter-Korean talks, Chung will travel Sunday to Washington where he's expected to relay the North's position and try to bring both sides back to the negotiating table.

The latest nuclear crisis erupted in late 2002 when U.S. officials claimed the North breached an earlier agreement by admitting to a secret uranium-enrichment program. The North has since denied the U.S. allegation, but in February announced it has built plutonium-based nuclear weapons.

On Wednesday, the South Koreans also demanded the North resolve the issue of South Korean abductees and prisoners of war still believed to be held there, Kim said. The North Koreans called for an end to joint military exercises between South Korea and the United States. The two Koreas are still technically at war following the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended in a cease-fire, not a peace treaty, although exchanges between the two neighbors have increased since a historic summit of their leaders in 2000, reports the AP. I.L.

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