South Korea was set to send a high-level delegation to North Korea yesterday for talks that it hopes may break an impasse in international negotiations on the North's nuclear program.
The South's point man on the North, Unification Minister Lee Jong-seok, will lead the delegation for the Cabinet-level talks, which run through Monday in Pyongyang. The team was to fly directly to the North's capital.
The two Koreas hold such ministerial meetings several times a year to discuss measures to boost exchanges and ease tension across the world's most heavily fortified border.
South Korea hopes to focus this week's talks on persuading the North to end its boycott of the six-nation negotiations on ending its nuclear program, and to cooperate in addressing the issue of South Koreans abducted or taken prisoner by the North decades ago.
North Korea has stayed away from the nuclear talks with China, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the US since November, protesting financial restrictions imposed by Washington for Pyongyang's alleged currency counterfeiting and other wrong-doings.
Seoul estimates that 486 South Korean civilians are alive across the border after being abducted by the North.
It also believes Pyongyang is holding 542 others who were taken prisoner as soldiers during the 1950-53 Korean War.
The South has raised the issues of abductees and prisoners of war in talks with Pyongyang but has failed to achieve a breakthrough, as the North denies holding any war prisoners and says the civilians defected voluntarily.
South Korea plans to sweeten its demand this time with an offer of massive economic aid to the impoverished neighbor.
Lee, the chief South Korean negotiator, said earlier this week that he plans to propose "bold economic assistance" in this week's talks if North Korea cooperates on confirming the fate of abductees and missing POWs with the ultimate goal of sending them back home.
The two Koreas officially remain in a state of conflict because the armistice that ended the Korean War has never been converted into a peace treaty.