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(2nd LD) S. Korea to demand alternative venue for military talks with N. Korea: officials

All Headlines 17:59 February 22, 2010

(ATTN: CHANGES headline, lead; UPDATES paras 2-5 with spokesman's comment, background)

SEOUL, Feb. 22 (Yonhap) -- South Korea will likely accept North Korea's proposal to hold military talks next week but plans to demand that the meeting be held at the border, rather than in a North Korean border city as proposed by Pyongyang, officials said Monday.

Earlier Monday, North Korea proposed that working-level military officials meet in Kaesong on March 2 to discuss border transit, customs and communication issues in and out of an inter-Korean industrial complex in the North Korean city.

The counteroffer came in response to the South's earlier proposal that the sides meet on Feb. 23 at the House of Peace, located on the South Korean side of the truce village of Panmunjeom, inside the Demilitarized Zone that separate the two Koreas.

It was the first time for the communist North to propose holding military talks within its territory, a move seen by experts as an attempt to gain an upper-hand in these longstanding issues and overall relations with South Korea.

"The two Koreas have never held military talks in Kaesong. It has always been in Panmunjeom. We will likely request the North to meet under customary practices," said Won Tae-jae, spokesman of Seoul's defense ministry.

Won did not raise any particular objection over the proposed date, suggesting that the South is fine with it.

South Korea has long demanded that Pyongyang ease restrictions concerning communications, customs clearance and passage of South Korean workers to and from the Kaesong complex, where some 110 South Korean firms employ about 42,000 North Korean workers. If held, the talks next month would mark the first time that military officials from the two divided countries have met since October 2008.

The impoverished North, which relies on outside aid to feed its 24 million people, has made several attempts to reach out to the South since last summer in an about-face that analysts say shows the regime is feeling the pain of U.N. sanctions imposed for its nuclear test in May last year.

Still, the North has been reluctant to accept South Korea's requests for easier access to Kaesong and other measures aimed at boosting the park's competitiveness, as the regime is concerned such moves could shake its hold over the reclusive nation.

Dismissing the issue of eased border transit as unessential, Pyongyang is demanding pay raises for its workers at the Kaesong complex. The minimum monthly wage for a North Korean worker remains less than US$58.

North Korea has also been raising military tensions with the South, conducting artillery drills for three days in a row last month. Analysts say that Pyongyang's provocative gesture may be part of an attempt to highlight the necessity of a peace treaty to replace the 1953 Korean War armistice, one of the North's key preconditions for its return to international nuclear talks.

North Korea, which operates a military of 1.2 million troops, is believed to possess enough plutonium to build at least six atomic bombs.


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