North and South Korea agree to economic talks

More family reunions set, but cross-border roads and rail links are stalled


SEOUL, South Korea - In the highest-level meeting between North and South Korea in almost a year, the North agreed yesterday to discuss economic cooperation with the South and to allow another round of reunions of families divided by the Korean War, but it balked at setting a date for key military talks that would allow construction of road and rail links across the highly militarized border.

The talks, part of a flurry of diplomacy with the United States, Japan and South Korea, come after the impoverished communist nation has come under pressure from all sides.

Japan stopped its food aid this year. South Korea sharply reduced its aid. And President Bush included North Korea along with Iraq and Iran in his reference to an "axis of evil."

Against the backdrop of a looming food shortage, the steps announced yesterday seem to be a response to a newfound leverage by outside countries over North Korea, which is dependent on aid.

"North Korea seems to want to improve relations with South Korea, Japan and the United States to tide over economic difficulties," South Korea's deputy foreign minister, Lee Tae-sik, told reporters. "It looks like they realized they can't get any financial aid from the international society as long as military tension persists on the Korean peninsula."

Victor D. Cha, a Korea expert at Georgetown University, said the discussions could strengthen the hand of U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and other moderates in the Bush administration who want to send a negotiating mission to Pyongyang this fall.

Noting that the North had made diplomatic overtures many times before, he said by telephone, "The actions on the part of North Korea always come when North Korea needs something, in this case, food."

When talks were stalled for seven hours yesterday, the South Korean agriculture minister, Kim Dong-tae, told reporters that Seoul was willing to increase its offer of 300,000 tons of rice on credit to the North.

The reunions, to be held in mid-September, would be the fifth round in two years. The economic talks, now scheduled for the end of this month, were to have been held in May.

On the complex issue of military approval for road and rail construction in the demilitarized zone, differing versions of the final statements of both nations seemed to indicate that North Korea's huge military enjoys a wide degree of autonomy from civilian control.

"The two Koreas agreed to hold military talks as soon as possible and also agreed that each side needs to secure military steps shortly to help build railways and roads between the two Koreas," read the version presented by South Korea, where elected civilian presidents have ruled for a decade.

The North has simply said, "Both sides agreed to make a proposal to their military."

The wording appeared to indicate that Kim Jong Il, the North Korean leader, has yet to win total control over his country's million-man army.

In the world's first case of communist succession, Kim took over leadership of North Korea on the death of his father, Kim Il Sung, in 1994. Four years later he was confirmed as chairman of the National Defense Commission, North Korea's highest executive post.

Constantly working to build support among the military, he visits military units almost weekly, has appointed hundreds of new generals and follows a "military-first" policy, plowing a quarter of North Korea's gross national product into defense.

But yesterday Kim's envoys here did not dare to set a date for military talks without consulting the generals.

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