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SKorean officials travel to NKorea for meeting

South Korean officials traveled on Tuesday to North Korea for the first official dialogue between the two governments under South Korea's conservative President Lee Myung-bak, amid tension over Pyongyang's on April 5 rocket launch.

world Updated: Apr 21, 2009 07:10 IST

South Korean officials traveled on Tuesday to North Korea for the first official dialogue between the two governments under South Korea's conservative President Lee Myung-bak, amid tension over Pyongyang's on April 5 rocket launch. Also adding strain to the meeting was North Korea's recent warning that the South not join a US-led program to stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction. The North also has been holding a South Korean worker at a joint industrial complex for allegedly denouncing Pyongyang's political system. South Korea hopes to try to win the release of the detained worker during the talks.

Analysts and media have speculated the North could use the meeting to raise tensions by threatening to further undermine the troubled industrial zone in Kaesong, just north of the border, if Seoul announces its participation in the anti-WMD program. Pyongyang has long denounced the program as part of what it claims are US efforts to overthrow the North Korean government. "It is possible that the North might threaten to shut down the Kaesong Complex if South Korea joins" the program, Cheong Seong-chang, a senior analyst at the security think-tank Sejong Institute, south of Seoul, told reporters on Monday. North Korea has also been stoking tensions in the standoff over its nuclear program after the UN Security Council condemned its rocket launch. It has kicked out all international monitors of its nuclear facilities and vowed to restart them and boycott international nuclear talks.

The chief of the UN nuclear watchdog, Mohamed ElBaradei, said in Beijing on Monday that the North could restart the facilities within months _ a move that could lead to production of weapons-grade plutonium.

Pyongyang says the UN rebuke is unfair because the rocket liftoff was a peaceful satellite launch. But the US and others believe the launch was a test of the North's long-range missile technology.

Kim Ho-nyeon, spokesman for South Korea's Unification Ministry, said that Seoul's seven-member delegation crossed into North Korea by land on Tuesday morning, but he could not confirm whether talks had begun.

Pyongyang made the surprise offer to South Korea for dialogue last week, saying only that it wants to discuss the factory park where more than 100 South Korean companies run factories and employ North Korean workers.

Tuesday's talks mark the first government-to-government dialogue between the sides since Lee took office in February last year with a pledge to get tough with Pyongyang and its nuclear ambitions. Their ties have since rapidly strained, with the North cutting off dialogue and suspending major reconciliation projects. Pyongyang has also restricted access to the factory zone by tightening border controls, raising concerns among participating South Korean companies about the project's viability.

Since Lee office took office, the countries have met only for military talks or on the sidelines of six-nation negotiations aimed at North Korea's nuclear disarmament.

Under a 2007 six-nation deal, North Korea agreed to disable its main nuclear complex in Yongbyon north of Pyongyang in return for 1 million tons of fuel oil and other concessions. In June 2008, North Korea blew up the cooling tower there in a dramatic show of its commitment to denuclearization.

But disablement came to halt a month later as Pyongyang wrangled with Washington over how to verify its past atomic activities. The latest round of talks, in December, failed to push the process forward.

The six-party talks, which began in 2003, involve the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States.