SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea has accepted a North Korean proposal to hold high-level defense talks following months of soaring tensions, in a breakthrough announced after the U.S. and China urged them to improve communication.
Any talks could prove significant if Seoul and Pyongyang can put aside military and political animosity and lay the groundwork for a resumption of long-stalled international negotiations on ending North Korea's nuclear programs. Lower-level defense talks last year foundered over the issue of the sinking of a South Korean naval ship in disputed waters.
The agenda this time should include North Korean assurances that it will take "responsible measures" over the ship sinking and the shelling of a South Korean island and not provoke further conflict, said Chun Hae-sung, a spokesman for South Korea's Unification Ministry, which is in charge of inter-Korean affairs.
North Korea launched artillery at a South Korean island in November in an attack that killed four people. It denies, however, attacking the navy ship Cheonan that sank in March, killing 46 sailors.
Inter-Korean relations have been complicated by a power transition under way in the North, where leader Kim Jong Il is believed to be grooming his youngest son Kim Jong Un to succeed him. Some analysts say the ship sinking and the artillery attack were carried out to display the younger Kim's mettle to North Korea's military and bolster his legitimacy as the next leader.
In a letter to South Korea's defense minister on Thursday, North Korea's defense chief proposed holding talks in early February to ease tensions and "express opinions" about the two incidents, the North's official Korean Central News Agency reported Friday.
North Korea has taken "a firm stance to resolve" all pending military issues, including the Cheonan sinking and the island bombing, in the high-level talks, KCNA said. "The Korean peninsula is at the crucial crossroads to war or peace," KCNA said.
The North's defense chief also proposed preliminary meetings in late January to discuss details of the high-level talks.
The South said it will also propose separate talks with North Korea to verify its commitment to abandoning its nuclear programs.
South Korea had rejected earlier North Korean calls for unconditional dialogue as insincere. South Korea has also called for an apology from the North.
"North Korea may make gestures in the talks that can be accepted by South Korea," said Jeon Kyong-mann, an analyst at the state-run Korea Institute for Defense Analyses in Seoul.
The two countries' defense chiefs last met in Pyongyang in November 2007, a month after the second summit between the leaders of their countries.
On Wednesday, President Barack Obama and his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao agreed in talks in Washington on the importance of maintaining peace and stability on the Korean peninsula, and said that communication between the Koreas is a key element for any progress.
"The United States and China emphasized the importance of an improvement in North-South relations and agreed that sincere and constructive inter-Korean dialogue is an essential step," they said.
They stressed the importance of an early resumption of six-nation negotiations on North Korea's nuclear programs.
The Obama-Hu talks were closely watched in South Korea, which has a decades-long security alliance with Washington, while China is North Korea's only major ally.
On Thursday, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs called the agreement on military talks "an important step forward" and a "positive step." U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said it was welcome, "but, obviously, we'd stress that it's important that North Korea continue to take meaningful steps to improve inter-Korean relations."
North Korea appeared to have made the offer to show the U.S. and China that it is serious about reducing tensions, said Kim Yong-hyun, a North Korea analyst at Seoul's Dongguk University.
He also said the inter-Korean talks could serve as a "stepping stone for the resumption of the disarmament talks."
Seoul, Washington and Tokyo have pressed the North to prove it is serious about giving up its atomic ambitions before they will allow a new round of aid-for-disarmament talks.
North Korea has expressed a desire to restart the nuclear talks it quit in early 2009. The talks involve the two Koreas, Japan, the United States, China and Russia.
North Korea conducted two nuclear tests in recent years and is believed to have produced enough weaponized plutonium for at least half a dozen bombs.
The North also unveiled in November a uranium enrichment facility that could give it a second way to make atomic bombs.