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North Korea, South Korea Meet Again

June 22, 1999

BEIJING (AP) _ North and South Korea held their highest level government talks in 14 months today, signaling their willingness to improve ties despite tensions following a naval clash.

The talks showed only modest progress, as last week’s sinking of a northern gunboat by the South’s navy in a disputed area of the Yellow Sea intruded on the negotiations. The meeting was scheduled to deal with reunions of divided families and aid to North Korea.

South Korean Vice Unification Minister Yang Young-shik told reporters that each side restated its position on the reunions and the naval clash during the 90-minute meeting.

His North Korean counterpart, Pak Yong Su, left the negotiating site _ the Kempinski Hotel in Beijing _ without commenting. Later, North Korean media reported that Pak conditioned his delegation’s attendance at another meeting on South Korea making ``full preparations″ to apologize.

A South Korean embassy spokesman, Han Jae Heuk, said he knew nothing of the report. He said negotiators agreed to talk by phone later in the day to set up another session.

Meanwhile, the top U.S. official on North Korea, Charles Kartman, arrived in Beijing today for talks with North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Gye Gwan on bilateral issues.

Kartman and Kim will meet Wednesday and Thursday to discuss an inspection by U.S. experts of a suspected North Korean underground nuclear facility last month, upcoming peace talks with South Korea, and the Yellow Sea dispute.

In the demilitarized zone that separates the Koreas, generals from the American-led U.N. Command and North Korea ended a separate meeting today without agreement on ways of avoiding further armed clashes.

Command officials said the two-hour meeting at the truce village of Panmunjom focused on the recent gun battle off the peninsula’s central west coast. But the talks made little headway as North Korea renewed its claim to the disputed waters.

A North Korean gunboat was sunk and several others heavily damaged June 15 in the shootout. About 30 North Korean sailors were believed to have died.

Despite the clash, Communist North Korea is in its fourth year of widespread food shortages and needs aid to repair its ruined economy. South Korean President Kim Dae-jung is also in need of tangible evidence his more open policy toward Pyongyang is working, especially after the clash and North Korea’s apparent detention of a South Korean tourist.

South Korea’s Yang and North Korea’s Pak opened the talks in a display of friendliness, smiling and shaking hands for reporters.

``After three straight days of rain, we have a sunny day today,″ Pak said.

``Rain is a blessing. I hope it brings fruitful talks,″ Yang replied.

No mention was made of North Korea’s cancellation of the talks Monday. The North reportedly refused to start because Seoul had failed to deliver a promised shipment of fertilizer by Sunday. The shipment arrived overnight, clearing the way for the talks.

Under an agreement reached early this month, South Korea pledged to supply 200,000 tons of fertilizer to the North by the end of July. In return, North Korea agreed to discuss the family reunions.

An estimated 10 million people were separated from their families first by partition of the peninsula in 1945, then by the Korean War in 1950-53. The divided countries face each other across a heavily armed buffer zone _ one of the last Cold War flashpoints.

Update hourly