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(2nd LD) S. Korea backing away from potential Red Cross talks with N. Korea

All Headlines 16:46 February 09, 2011

(ATTN: UPDATES with developments throughout; ADDS background; RECASTS lead, headline)
By Sam Kim

SEOUL, Feb. 9 (Yonhap) -- South Korea has no intention to push ahead with Red Cross talks with North Korea if the two sides have failed to agree on a high-level defense meeting, a Unification Ministry official said Wednesday.

Earlier in the day, the ministry said it agreed "in principle" to Pyongyang's earlier proposal to hold Red Cross talks on pending humanitarian issues between the countries, including the reunions of families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War.

An official, however, said immediately after the military officers of the Koreas failed to reach agreement in their two days of talks that such Red Cross negotiations would now be elusive.

"Without the opening of a high-level military meeting, we have no plan to discuss details for Red Cross talks," the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the military negotiators had yet to return with details on their talks.

The military talks, the first of their kind in nearly half a year, ended with no progress, according to defense ministry officials in Seoul. Having bombarded a South Korean island and killed four people in November, the North proposed earlier this year that senior defense officials of the two countries meet to explore ways to defuse tension -- a move South Korean officials have often described as a precursor to pleading for badly needed economic aid.

The South demands that the North make moves that account for the Yeonpyeong shelling and the deadly March sinking of a South Korean warship before Seoul can consider resuming exchanges with Pyongyang.

Seoul officials also demand that Pyongyang reaffirm its intention to drop its nuclear arms ambitions in talks with Seoul, saying such moves would be considered signs that the North is being "sincere."

"If defense talks are not being held, it means that the North has yet to account for its provocations and that it has yet to show its sincerity toward the South," the Unification Ministry official said.

Earlier in the day, the ministry faxed a message to Pyongyang to show its consensus on the need to hold dialogue to immediately resolve issues such as the reunions of families split by war. Unification Ministry spokeswoman Lee Jong-joo, however, said that the message did not mean that Seoul had finalized its decision to hold Red Cross talks with Pyongyang.

"Whether Red Cross talks will actually be held is an issue to be discussed additionally as we monitor the inter-Korean situation ... after high-level military talks," she said in a briefing.

North Korea proposed earlier this year that the Red Cross officials of the sides meet to discuss a series of humanitarian issues, a gesture apparently aimed at securing economic aid from the South. In return for assistance, the North typically agrees to allow the reunions of families separated by the Korean War.

Last year, the North demanded massive rice and fertilizer aid in return for routinely held reunions. The South essentially refused the demand and later suspended what little remained of its humanitarian assistance after the North's November shelling.

Millions of Koreans are believed to have been separated from their family members after the Korean War ended in a truce, which has yet to be replaced by a peace treaty. Tens of thousands of South Koreans are on a waiting list for a chance to be reunited.

Citizens of the two countries cannot freely travel across the border, as their governments remain technically at war after the Korean War ended in a truce.

samkim@yna.co.kr
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