SEOUL - Negotiators from North and South Korea haggled Thursday over food aid, family reunions and other topics as their first high-level talks since the North’s nuclear test went into a third day.
At the meeting in Pyongyang the impoverished North has asked its wealthy neighbour to resume crucial food aid, which was suspended in protest at the communist state’s nuclear and missile programmes.
“The North started to raise the issue of humanitarian aid during working-level officials’ meetings on Wednesday. But the details have yet to be worked out for a joint statement,” a South Korean official told Seoul’s Yonhap news agency on condition of anonymity.
The South wants to use its food and fertiliser aid as leverage to press the North to honour a six-nation deal to scrap its nuclear programme, according to sources quoted by Yonhap.
Working groups Thursday were continuing negotiations on how to resume aid, family reunions and inter-Korean economic projects, according to pool reports from Seoul’s domestic media.
At the first full session Wednesday Kwon Ho-ung, the North’s top negotiator, proposed resuming humanitarian projects on a full scale immediately.
He did not specify them but the comments were seen as a reference to food aid and the reunions, with the latter possibly conditional on the former.
The South suspended its annual shipments of 500,000 tons of rice and 350,000 tons of fertiliser after the North’s missile tests last July. The North hit back by walking out of ministerial talks that month and halting the reunions.
The October nuclear test further strained ties.
The curent Seoul government is committed to engagement and reconcilation with its neighbour. But it is under domestic pressure not to give away too much without getting something in return.
Seoul may offer to ship some fertiliser shortly after these talks, in time for the spring rice planting, said sources quoted by Yonhap. But they said it would try to link additional aid to progress in nuclear disarmament.
It was unclear if the North would accept any linkage to disarmament. Negotiator Kwon Wednesday rejected criticism by Seoul’s Unification Minister Lee Jae-Joung of the missile tests, saying they were “part of a sovereign nation’s legitimate right to self-defence.”
A senior unification ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that unlike previous ministerial talks, “these involve the dual tracks of inter-Korean relations and the six-party talks, so difficult negotiations are ahead.”
The North agreed at the six-nation talks in Beijing last month to disable its nuclear programme in exchange for economic aid and diplomatic benefits.
It has taken some first steps, inviting the head of the UN atomic agency to visit and sending its own chief nuclear negotiator to the United States for talks.
But analysts have warned that unconditional aid from South Korea could reduce the North’s incentive to honour the Beijing accord.
South Korea’s five chief negotiators were due Thursday afternoon to pay a courtesy call on Kim Yong-Nam, the North’s ceremonial head of state, officials said.
As a goodwill gesture the hosts laid on a birthday breakfast for chief negotiator Lee, who turned 63 on Thursday.