S. Korea rejects N.Korea bid to bring talks forward

SEOUL, Jan 31, 2011 (AFP) - South Korea on Monday rejected North Korea's proposal to bring forward the date of military talks designed to ease months of tension, the defence ministry said.

The ministry said it was sticking to its original suggested date of February 11 for the preliminary talks, after the North over the weekend proposed bringing them forward to February 1.

It would be the first cross-border dialogue since Pyongyang's bombardment of a border island on November 23.

The working-level talks, probably between colonels, are aimed at setting the date, place and agenda for high-level military dialogue.

But Seoul says the high-level meeting will only go ahead if Pyongyang takes responsibility for two attacks last year and promises no repetition.

Apart from the shelling, the South accuses the North of torpedoing a warship last March with the loss of 46 lives, a charge the North denies.

The North also says its artillery attack on Yeonpyeong island, near the disputed Yellow Sea border, was a justified response to a South Korean drill which dropped shells into waters claimed by Pyongyang.

After months of fiery rhetoric, the North has changed tack this year and made frequent appeals for dialogue. The South has described most of the approaches as insincere.

It was unclear why the North wanted to advance the date for the working-level talks, to be held at the border village of Panmunjom.

Officials quoted by Yonhap news agency said Pyongyang may be trying to resume high-level dialogue before the birthday of its leader Kim Jong-Il on February 16.

On Monday, a North Korean state committee sent a separate proposal for early talks on humanitarian and other issues, including the reunions of families split by war six decades ago, according to the country's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).

"Now is the time for the authorities of the north and the south to sit face to face and have exhaustive and constructive talks," the Korea Asia-Pacific Peace Committee said.

The committee, which is mainly in charge of cross-border economic affairs, said the North's proposal for high-level military talks had "removed all the hurdles lying in the way of the inter-Korean dialogue", KCNA said.

The South's unification ministry said it would not respond to the committee's proposal.

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