Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - South Korea Monday announced a breakthrough in frozen relations with the communist North, saying it would shortly be sending a high-level envoy to Pyongyang.
Local media reports added that the reunions of families divided by one of the world's most militarized borders since the 1950-53 Korean War, could also resume before the end of April.
The reunions and bilateral talks have been suspended since last year, in part in response to what North Korea saw as hostility from the United States, South Korea's foremost ally and military sponsor.
In a brief statement, Seoul's presidential spokeswoman Park Sun-sook said special advisor Lim Dong-won would visit in the first week of April to discuss ways of easing tensions.
"We expect the talks to lay the groundwork for a resumption of stalled relations between South and North Korea," she said, adding that the initiative had come from President Kim Dae-jung and been accepted by Pyongyang.
"President Kim has decided to send the envoy to the North in a desire to ease tension on the Korean Peninsula."
The Yonhap news agency described Lim, former cabinet minister and director of national intelligence, as the architect of Kim's "sunshine policy," aimed at seeking reconciliation with North Korea.
As Park made the announcement live on television, North Korea's official mouthpiece, Radio Pyongyang, confirmed that an envoy of the South Korean president would visit to "consult [on] the serious situation that has recently arisen before the people of the two sides and inter-Korean issues of mutual interest."
Speaking in Washington Sunday night, Secretary of State Colin Powell called the news "real encouraging."
The South Korean daily, JoongAng Ilbo, reported Monday that the apparent thaw was a result of secret meetings held in North Korea and in third countries between January and March.
But North Koreans had then demanded that a regular annual South Korean-U.S. military exercise be cancelled, it said.
Seoul refused, and the bilateral exchanges were put on ice while the week-long maneuvers, which began last Thursday, take place.
The paper also said that the North may as a gesture send senior officials to Seoul during the World Cup soccer competition, which is being co-hosted by South Korea and Japan in late May and June.
South Korean analyst Lee Young-jong wrote Monday that the North's decision to agree to talks was not the result of a softening of its position, but a realization by a cash-strapped and isolated regime that it has little choice.
Kim's "sunshine policy" culminated in a historic June 2000 summit in Pyongyang between Kim and his counterpart in the North, Kim Jong-il.
But the promise offered by that meeting mostly failed to materialize.
Balbina Hwang, policy analyst for Northeast Asia in the Asian Studies Center of The Heritage Foundation, pointed out in a recent interview that North Korea has yet to honor a number of commitments it made, including a promise of a return visit to Seoul, development of a joint economic zone and work on a railroad linking the two Koreas.
Although North Korea did keep an agreement to allow family reunification visits across the border, they were subsequently put on hold.
Hwang dismissed claims that Bush had caused the problems by following a "hard-line" policy toward North Korea, saying the current administration's policy was in line with that of its predecessor, except for a greater emphasis on reciprocity and verification in the weapons arena.
Bush earlier this year angered Pyongyang when he described North Korea, Iran and Iraq as a terror-supporting "axis of evil" threatening world peace.
Recent reports disclosing that a Pentagon document named North Korea as one of as one of seven potential targets for nuclear strikes added to the chill. Pyongyang threatened to abandon a 1994 agreement to freeze nuclear reactors suspected of producing weapons-grade plutonium.
In another recent incident that further strained North-South relations, 25 North Koreans defected to the South after seeking shelter at the Spanish Embassy in Beijing earlier this month.
The Chinese government allowed the 25 to leave the country, and they flew to South Korea via the Philippines. But according to reports from China, Beijing then launched a crackdown on North Koreans in the country, rounding them up and repatriating them to their famine-hit homeland.
E-mail a news tip to Patrick Goodenough.
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