South Korea will soon propose holding talks with the North that could pave the way for a resumption of six-party negotiations aimed at ending Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions in return for aid, an official said on Monday.
The meeting, which would be a major breakthrough after a two-year suspension of the disarmament-for-aid process, will be proposed separately from high-level military talks between the rival Koreas.
Last week the North accepted the South's terms for talks to try to defuse one of the worst crises on the peninsula since the 1950-53 Korean War.
"As soon as (internal) discussions conclude, we will be making a proposal to the North on high-level military talks and also official meetings on denuclearization," said Unification Ministry spokeswoman Lee Jong-ju.
"We need to look more at whether we can make the proposals for those talks at the same time or with a time differential," Lee told a briefing.
A South Korean Defence Ministry official said on Monday a set of working-level talks will probably take place in mid-February to set the dates, venue and agenda for a high-level military meeting, and the South's proposal will likely be made this week.
The North's acceptance of the South's conditions for talks last week came as a culmination of U.S. pressure on China with a warning that it would redeploy forces in Asia if Beijing did not do all it could to rein in North Korea, a U.S. official said.
Tensions on the Korean peninsula rose sharply last year when a South Korean navy ship was sunk by a torpedo attack in March that Seoul blamed on Pyongyang. The North bombarded a South Korean island late in the year, the first such attack in decades.
"The government continues to hold the position that we need to check how serious the North is about denuclearization," said Lee of the Unification Ministry.
Washington and Beijing, the two key players in the six-party process, have argued that North-South dialogue is a prerequisite for a resumption of the talks also involving the two Koreas, Russia and China. Pyongyang walked out after rejecting nuclear inspections and pronounced the talks finished in 2009.
It has since expressed a willingness to return, a move that analysts said was motivated by an acute need for outside help as its impoverished economy continues to be squeezed by international sanctions that cut off its lucrative arms trade.