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Koreas Resume Nuke Talks After Hiatus

South Korea, seeking to get North Korea (search) to return to six-nation negotiations over its nuclear weapons program, hoped for a response Tuesday from the reclusive communist country.

The rival Koreas resumed their first face-to-face talks in 10 months at the North Korean border village of Kaesong. The two-day meeting began Monday, with both delegations returning to their respective capitals for consultations after six hours of talks.

Trying to ease rising tensions, South Korea (search) on Monday promised a major new proposal if North Korea returns to the talks. No details were released, but South Korean media speculated that Seoul would offer aid to its impoverished neighbor, which has been wracked by famine.

South Korea provides fertilizer and other humanitarian aid to the North each year, but says any major economic aid should be preceded by North Korea's agreement to dismantle its nuclear weapons (search) facilities.

The resumption of dialogue between the two countries was the first potentially positive development on the Korean Peninsula since February, when North Korea claimed it had nuclear weapons and said it would indefinitely boycott arms talks until Washington drops its "hostile" policy.

North Korea, with a history of brinksmanship to wring aid and other concessions from the West, said last week it had completed removing spent fuel rods from a reactor at its main nuclear complex — a process that could allow it to harvest more weapons-grade plutonium — and would strengthen its nuclear arsenal.

The North Korean delegation listened without comment as South Korean Vice Unification Minister Rhee Bong-jo brought up the nuclear issue during Monday's first session. North Korea normally shuns direct talks with the South over its nuclear program.

"If the six-party talks resume, it shouldn't be talks for the sake of talks, but substantial progress is necessary," Rhee said. "For this, the South side is preparing for a substantial proposal, and will propose it to the related countries when the talks resume."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice warned North Korea against testing nuclear weapons.

"Escalation on the part of the North Koreans is going to deepen their isolation a lot," she said Monday after a visit to Iraq.

Japan's Nihon Keizai business daily reported Tuesday that North Korea has invited Rice to visit the country for nuclear talks. Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing conveyed the request to Rice when they spoke by phone on Friday, Nikkei said, citing unidentified sources in U.S.-North Korean negotiations.

A State Department spokesman said he could not confirm the report. Washington has resisted direct talks with the North over its nuclear program.

National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley threatened unspecified actions against North Korea if it carried out a nuclear test. U.S. officials said last week that spy satellites looking at the North's northeastern Kilju spotted the digging of a tunnel and the construction of a reviewing stand — possible indications of an upcoming test.

Shinzo Abe, secretary-general of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party, said Tokyo would take the issue to the United Nations. "It is unthinkable not to impose any sanctions in case of a nuclear test," he said.

But South Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Song Min-soon played down the prospects of a nuclear test.

"The reports that are coming out are artificial and groundless that have no specific evidence to back them up," Song told South Korea's Yonhap news agency.

Discussions involving the two Koreas, the United States, China, Japan and Russia have been stalled since last June after three inconclusive rounds. North Korea refused to participate in the fourth set of talks, originally scheduled for last September.

Washington's top envoy in that dispute, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, met Monday with South Korean officials.

"We are doing everything to get this six-party process going, and we really want to, but that does not mean we are not going to look eventually at other options," Hill told South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon.

Talks between the two Koreas broke off in July after mass defections to South Korea from the North that it labeled kidnappings.

Rhee made several suggestions for improving relations. North Korea wanted to talk about food aid and fertilizer for its spring planting season; Rhee said the size of such aid needs further consultations.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher offered support for South Korean efforts to bring North Korea back to negotiations. He added, however, that United States believes "humanitarian assistance to the people of North Korea, including food or helping them grow food, shouldn't be conditioned or negotiated as part of the six-party talks."

The latest nuclear standoff with North Korea was sparked in late 2002 after U.S. officials accused the North of running a secret uranium enrichment program.

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