Military officers from the two Koreas began talks Thursday in the first official contact between the nations since Seoul's new, conservative president took office in February.
The two sides were scheduled to discuss the implementation of previous military agreements, a South Korean Defense Ministry statement said. It gave no other details.
Col. Lee Sang-cheol, Seoul's chief delegate for talks, said he felt "a sense of deep responsibility" as he left for the talks' venue at the border village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone that divides the Koreas.
Lee also vowed to do his utmost to ensure sincere talks with a positive outcome, according to Yonhap news agency. The talks come at a time of heightened tensions over North Korea's move to restart its nuclear facilities and concern about communist leader Kim Jong Il's health. Kim, 66, has not been seen for weeks since he reportedly suffered a stroke in mid-August.
North Korea's decision to stop disabling its Yongbyon nuclear reprocessing plant and to take steps to restore it _ in violation of a 2007 pact _ has alarmed regional powers. Chief U.S. nuclear negotiator Christopher Hill was in Pyongyang on Wednesday to try to salvage the international disarmament-for-aid deal. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak marked Armed
Forces Day on Wednesday by calling for a stronger military. North and South Korea remain technically at war.
"Only a strong military can defend our land, deter war and guarantee peace," he said in an address televised nationally.
South Korea's military "should be prepared to deal sternly with any forces that threaten our security," Lee said, without naming the country's communist adversary by name.
The 1950-53 Korean conflict that killed millions and left the peninsula divided ended in a truce, not a peace treaty. Some 28,500 U.S. troops are stationed in South Korea to help defend the ally against threats from the North's 1.1 million-strong military, the world's fifth-largest.
Relations between the two Koreas warmed significantly following the first-ever summit of their leaders in 2000. A second summit _ held exactly a year ago Thursday _ also was hailed as another major step toward reconciliation.
But Lee, a conservative, has taken a hard-line stance on North Korea that has roused Pyongyang's ire. The regime branded
him a "traitor" and "pro-American sycophant," and it suspended all government-level talks with the South after he was inaugurated. Ties further deteriorated after a North Korean army guard fatally shot a South Korean tourist vacationing at a
mountain resort in the North in July.
North Korea maintains that the tourist was shot because she entered a restricted military area and ignored warnings to halt. The South responded by suspending all tours to the North's scenic Diamond Mountain resort, cutting off a key source of hard currency for the cash-strapped country.
Last week, after months of no official contact, the North proposed holding military talks. South Korean defense officials said the working-level talks would be led by army colonels from both sides.