Sat, Jun 02, 2007 - Page 5 News List

'Reconciliation' meeting between Koreas fizzles out

OPTIMISTSouth Korean Unification Minister Lee Jae-joung refused to admit that the talks had been a failure, arguing that there had been a frank exchange of opinions

AFP , SEOUL

Reconciliation talks between North and South Korea ended yesterday with no agreements reached, following a row over Seoul's decision to link promised rice aid to Pyongyang's denuclearization.

After four days of high-level talks, the two sides issued a four-sentence statement that set no date for the next ministerial meeting.

The South's Unification Ministry had said earlier in the day that no joint statement would be issued.

The two sides said only that they "have sufficiently presented their positions and held sincere discussions on fundamental and actual matters linked to progress in inter-Korean relations."

They agreed "to continue to further examine ways to boost reconciliation and cooperation between the two Koreas and peace on the Korean peninsula," the statement said.

"I am thankful that we can hold a closing meeting," said the South's chief delegate, Unification Minister Lee Jae-joung, before reading the statement.

Earlier in the day Lee's talks with his Northern counterpart Kwon Ho-ung made no progress and his ministry described the mood as "not good."

The South has refused to make its first shipment of much-needed rice aid until the North begins honouring a six-nation disarmament deal reached in February.

The communist state says that the two issues are unrelated and that "foreign powers" — a reference to the US — are interfering with the rice deal.

"I don't think the meeting was a failure," Lee told reporters later, in answer to a question. "There was an exchange of frank opinions on the implementation of the Feb. 13 agreement."

Hankook newspaper said the North Koreans on Thursday threatened "stern measures," including halting a reunion programme for separated families, unless the South delivered its aid.

It said Lee had an urgent meeting with President Roh Moo-hyun after the threat but Roh stuck by Seoul's position.

The talks are the highest-level regular contacts between two nations still technically at war following their 1950 to 1953 conflict. But efforts to ease tensions and promote joint projects have fallen foul of the continuing nuclear impasse.

At this week's talks, South Korea reiterated appeals to the North to shut down its Yongbyon reactor, the first step in the February deal. It produces the raw material for bomb-making plutonium.

The North refuses to budge until it receives US$25 million which had been frozen since 2005 in Macau's Banco Delta Asia (BDA) under US-inspired sanctions.

Washington said the accounts were unfrozen in March, but the North has had problems finding a foreign bank to handle the transfer of cash deemed to be tainted. Peter Beck, Northeast Asia director of the International Crisis Group, said the US Treasury is understood to be unwilling to issue a legal waiver to any bank which makes the transfer.

Pyongyang rejected a suggestion by chief US nuclear negotiator Christopher Hill that it start shutting down Yongbyon before the long-running banking dispute is settled.

"Our position has been clear from the beginning," Kim Myong-gil, deputy chief of the North Korean mission to the UN, told Yonhap news agency by phone on Thursday.

"The issue of BDA has to be solved first," Kim said.

Inter-Korean relations soured last year with the North's missile launches and nuclear test, but improved after the February nuclear deal.

At the last ministerial round in March the South agreed in principle to resume annual rice and fertiliser aid. But it delayed the first shipment of rice, out of an annual total of 400,000 tonnes, pending progress on disarmament.

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