N.Korea, UN Command in key talks

 North Korea's military on Thursday held its first talks with the US-led UN Command since the sinking of a South Korean warship, as Washington announced naval exercises to deter the communist state.

The two sides met for 90 minutes at the border village of Panmunjom to discuss the sinking, according to a spokesman for the command, which has backed up South Korea's military since the 1950-53 war.

Details of the talks between a US and a North Korean colonel were not immediately available.

South Korea, the United States and other nations, citing the findings of a multinational investigation, accuse the North of firing a torpedo which sank the corvette the Cheonan in March with the loss of 46 lives.

The North Korean flag flies over its embassy in Beijing.

The North vehemently denies the allegations and has threatened a military response to any attempts to punish it.

Thursday's talks were intended to arrange a later meeting at general-level.

Media reports said the North was likely at the higher-level talks to repeat its claim that the multinational probe was a fabrication and part of a smear campaign.

The UN Command was expected to present the results of the Cheonan investigation and assert that the sinking near the tense Yellow Sea border was a serious breach of the 1953 armistice which ended the war.

The UN Security Council last Friday issued a statement which condemned the attack but did not apportion blame -- a result hailed by the North as a "great diplomatic victory".

The statement had been watered down under pressure from Pyongyang's key ally China.

The Pentagon announced Wednesday it would go ahead with joint naval exercises with South Korea aimed at sending a warning to the North, despite strong protests from China.

North Korea routinely denounces all drills between the South and its US ally as preparations for war.

On Saturday it threatened "strong physical retaliation" if the two countries persist in "demonstration of forces and sanctions" despite the UN statement.

Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would meet their counterparts in Seoul on July 21 to "discuss and likely approve a proposed series" of joint military exercises.

These would include "new naval and air exercises in both the Sea of Japan (East Sea) and the Yellow Sea", Morrell said.

South Korean defence ministry officials said the aircraft carrier USS George Washington was not expected to enter the sensitive Yellow Sea for the exercises but stay in the Sea of Japan, in an apparent concession to Beijing.

Morrell dismissed China's criticism of the exercise, insisting the drills are "a matter of our ability to exercise in the open seas, in international waters. Those determinations are made by us, and us alone."

The war games would be defensive in nature but "will send a clear message of deterrence to North Korea", Morrell said.

"Where we exercise, when we exercise, with whom and how, using what assets and so forth, are determinations that are made by the United States Navy, by the Department of Defense, by the United States government," he said.

source AFP

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