SEOUL, South Korea – Top North Korean envoys declined to set a date for returning to international nuclear disarmament talks but returned home Friday with a pledge of food aid from Seoul and accords on resuming family reunions and other cooperation across their tense border.
During Cabinet-level talks ending Thursday, the two Koreas also agreed to a series of reconciliation meetings in coming months. But the nuclear impasse continued, with the North lashing out at President Bush for meeting a prominent North Korean defector.
Pyongyang has for the past year boycotted six-nation talks aimed at getting it to end a nuclear program that U.S. intelligence believes already has produced at least two atomic bombs. Those talks include the two Koreas, the United States, China, Japan and Russia.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Il (search) raised hopes last week when he told a visiting South Korean minister of a possible return to the table as early as next month — provided the North gets appropriate respect from the United States.
The South tried to get the North to commit to that timeframe, but got no "definite answer" this week, said Kim Chun-shick, spokesman for the South's delegation. However, both sides agreed to resolve the nuclear dispute peacefully.
Washington has dismissed Kim Jong Il's recent comments, saying Pyongyang needs to set a firm date to return to the negotiations and talk substantively about giving up its nuclear program.
The failure to make concrete progress on the nuclear issue drew criticism Friday from South Korea's conservative media, which called on the government to reconsider its continued aid to the North in light of Pyongyang's refusal to abandon its nuclear aims.
"North Korea, in reality, has not taken one step forward from the stance that the North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il elucidated recently in Pyongyang," the main Chosun Ilbo daily wrote in an editorial.
The nuclear talks last convened June 23, 2004. Three rounds have failed to yield notable progress, but Washington has insisted the nuclear dispute be resolved in that forum, spurning the North's requests for direct talks.
North Korea (search) claimed in February that it had atomic weapons and has moved in recent months to potentially harvest more radioactive material to add to a supply believed enough for a half-dozen bombs.
On Thursday, a senior U.S. diplomat expressed optimism the North would return to arms talks and called on China to push Pyongyang harder on the issue.
"My sense is that the North Koreans will come back," said Robert Joseph, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security. "I hope in the near term."
But the North's propaganda machine launched another tirade Thursday at the United States, criticizing Bush for hosting Kang Chol Hwan, a North Korean defector working as a journalist in South Korea.
Bush met last week with Kang Chol Hwan, author of "The Aquariums of Pyongyang," a memoir detailing a decade of abuses at a North Korean prison camp. The North's Korean Central News Agency said the meeting was "an act of throwing a wet blanket on the efforts to resume" the nuclear talks.
In agreements Thursday, the South offered the North unspecified food aid. Reunions between families divided by the Korean border will resume in August, after being put on hold since last year. Plans also were made for economic, agricultural and fisheries talks.
Meanwhile, the Red Cross societies of the two rivals agreed to annual exchanges of medical personnel from hospitals in Pyongyang and Seoul. The South Korean Red Cross announced the decision Friday after the organization's head Han Wan-sang returned from a four-day visit to the North.
This week's Cabinet-level meetings were the 15th since a landmark 2000 summit between leaders of the two Koreas. Contacts resumed last month after a 10-month hiatus, with the North angry over mass defections of its citizens to the South.
The next high-level talks were set for Sept. 13-16 at the North's Mount Paektu.