South Korea pressed the North on Wednesday to follow through on its pledge to start dismantling its nuclear program, as the two Koreas' held their first high-level talks since the North's atomic test blast in October.
North Korea did not directly respond, but it proposed a full resumption of humanitarian projects — apparently referring to aid that the South has regularly sent the impoverished North, and to reunions of families separated since the 1950-53 Korean War.
The two Koreas' Cabinet-level meetings, their highest regular dialogue channel, began in Pyongyang for the first time in seven months Tuesday against the backdrop of a landmark international nuclear agreement.
The deal calls for the North to shutter its main nuclear reactor within 60 days in exchange for aid.
South Korean officials briefed pool reporters about what was said in Wednesday's meeting, the first formal negotiating session in the talks that run through Friday.
The South's chief delegate, Unification Minister Lee Jae-joung, urged the North to "quickly implement the Feb. 13 agreement," said delegation spokesman Lee Kwan-se.
The minister also expressed regret over the North's missile and nuclear tests, blaming them for the seven-month freeze in the inter-Korean reconciliation process.
The minister's North Korean counterpart, Senior Cabinet Councilor Kwon Ho Ung, did not say anything about the nuclear issue. However, according to Lee he defended its missile tests in July as a "legitimate right for self-defense as a sovereign nation."
Pyongyang wants to get a firmer North Korean commitment to the international nuclear accord at this week's meetings. But the North has shunned discussing the nuclear issue with the South, saying the matter is only between Pyongyang and Washington.
The North focused instead on inter-Korean issues, proposing to reopen various dialogue channels — including economic cooperation talks and other humanitarian projects that have been on hold over tensions following the North's missile and nuclear tests, Lee said.
The North's proposal was believed to be mainly aimed at getting the South to resume shipments of fertilizer, rice and other economic assistance. The South's aid has propped up the North's frail economy, but were suspended amid the recent tensions.
In exchange, the North is expected to agree to the South's proposal to resume reunions of families separated since the Korean War, another key humanitarian project.
The South also urged the North to end its interference in South Korea's politics, Lee said. The North has recently ratcheted up harsh rhetoric against the main opposition party in Seoul, in an apparent move to prevent its possible win in the December presidential election.
Despite the North's refusal to discuss the nuclear issue with the South, the country has taken other steps showing it is committed to the nuclear deal.
The North has also already invited the chief U.N. nuclear inspector to visit to discuss verifying the promised shutdown of its atomic reactor. The North's main nuclear negotiator, Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan, passed through China on Tuesday en route to the United States, where he was expected to meet U.S. diplomats in New York.
In addition, the North will hold talks with Japan on March 7-8 in Vietnam on establishing diplomatic relations and resolving disputes, Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki said Wednesday.
Three other working group meetings — under the Feb. 13 accord aimed at discussing the North's denuclearization, energy aid and making peace on the Korean peninsula — will be held in Beijing the week of March 12, South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported, citing an unidentified South Korean official.