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Generals from Koreas hold talks to ease tensions

Written by: Staff

SEOUL, March 2: North and South Korean generals began rare talks today on reducing military tensions and building confidence to help improve cross-border ties, a South Korean official said.

Lower-level, but senior, military officers from the two sides met last month at a border truce village and agreed on resuming the generals' talks, which had been suspended since June, 2004.

Efforts to reduce military tensions between the North and South, which remain technically at war, have lagged behind improving political and economic ties in recent years.

The generals discussed ways to ease tension along land and sea borders, establishing a joint fishing area near a disputed nautical border and military procedures involved in monitoring border crossings by rail, according to a pool report.

Generals from the two sides met at the Panmunjom truce village, a South Korean Defence Ministry official said by telephone. Panmunjom is at the heart of the heavily fortified Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) frontier and has conference buildings that straddle the border.

''The North actively participated. The atmosphere was very friendly,'' Colonel Moon Sung-mook, a spokesman for the South Korean delegation, was quoted as saying in the pool report.

There were two rare rounds of general-level talks in 2004 that resulted in an agreement on measures to prevent deadly naval clashes, but generals had not met formally since then.

Naval clashes in fishing grounds in the Yellow Sea in past years have killed or wounded scores of sailors on both sides.

South Korean officials have said more confidence-building measures are needed to ensure military tension does not get in the way of growing commercial ties across the border.

One example of this is what South Korean analysts say is lagging support from the North's military for linking railways through the border and making road travel less cumbersome.

North and South Korean officials held talks earlier this week on completing rail links. The two sides could not reach an agreement on test rail runs and did not set a date for another meeting, a South Korean Unification Ministry official said.

Train tracks already extend from the South, across the DMZ and into the North. From a technical standpoint, little more needs to be done to link the two Koreas by rail.

Inter-Korean talks have been moving at a brisk pace in recent months while multilateral talks on ending North Korea's nuclear weapons programmes have hit a snag since the last round was held in November.

The United States has cracked down on firms it suspects of helping North Korea in illicit activities such as counterfeiting. North Korea has said it would be unthinkable for it to return to the talks unless Washington ended the measures.

South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon urged the North to return without preconditions to the talks involving the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States.

''We are earnestly trying to contact each country and resume the six-party talks,'' Ban said at a regular news briefing.


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