SEOUL, South Korea – The two Koreas hold talks this week in Seoul in an atmosphere of optimism after North Korean leader Kim Jong II (search) pledged to seek reconciliation and hinted at a return soon to nuclear disarmament negotiations.
A high-level North Korean delegation was due to arrive in the South's capital on Tuesday for Cabinet-level talks starting the next day, aimed at normalizing ties and elaborating on agreements made during a surprise meeting last Friday between Kim and the South's top envoy to the North.
South Korean Unification Minister Chung Dong-young was in the North's capital last week heading a government delegation to anniversary celebrations of the landmark 2000 summit between the North's Kim and then-South Korean President Kim Dae-jung (search).
Chung and Kim on Friday pledged to return as soon as July to the nuclear talks that he has boycotted for a year — if the North gets appropriate respect from Washington.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, the main U.S. envoy on the North Korea nuclear issue, urged the North on Monday to set a firm date to return to the six-nation nuclear talks.
"We want to have a date and we hope that this will happen in July," Hill said in Seoul, according to a transcript of his comments provided by the U.S. Embassy.
Hill said resumed talks would be held "in an attitude of mutual respect to all the parties and also with the sense of equality."
The two Koreas also agreed verbally to work together on a variety of bilateral issues, which were expected to be discussed at the talks in Seoul running Wednesday through Friday.
They follow meetings last month in the North Korean town of Kaesong that marked a resumption in contacts severed by Pyongyang for 10 months in anger over mass defections of its citizens to the South.
Kim and Chung said family reunions between Koreans divided by the border would be resumed in August at the Diamond Mountain tourist resort, the only place South Koreans can freely visit in the North. Also, Pyongyang will send a high-level delegation to 60th anniversary celebrations in Seoul marking the Aug. 15 liberation of the Korean Peninsula from Japanese colonial rule.
Chung will head the South's delegation in the Seoul talks. Kwon Ho Ung, a senior Cabinet counselor, will lead the North's five-member delegation that arrives Tuesday afternoon in Seoul.
On Monday, South Korean officials said the impoverished North had requested 150,000 tons of fertilizer aid to help keep up its food production.
North Korea has depended on outside help to feed its 24 million people since the 1990s, when more than 1 million are estimated to have died from famine in the reclusive communist country due to natural catastrophes and outdated technology that led to years of poor harvests.
In January, Pyongyang asked for 500,000 tons in fertilizer aid but Seoul refused, citing the previously stalled inter-Korean relations. After the contacts resumed in May, the South agreed to ship 200,000 tons of fertilizer to the North, and deliveries were completed Sunday.