SEOUL, South Korea – South Korea on Friday delayed a full resumption of aid shipments to North Korea until the communist regime shuts down its main atomic reactor under an international disarmament pact reached last month.
The two sides agreed at high-level talks to hold an economic cooperation meeting aimed at addressing rice aid in late April — after a 60-day deadline for the North to close its reactor under a Feb. 13 nuclear agreement, according to a joint statement.
The deal marked a rare victory for the South in fending off the North's strong demand that the economic talks be held this month. The dispute was the key sticking point at this week's negotiations, delaying their closing session by nearly five hours.
North Korea also reiterated its commitment to last month's nuclear deal. The two Koreas "agreed to make joint efforts for a smooth implementation" of the nuclear agreement, according to the statement.
The South's chief negotiator, Unification Minister Lee Jae-joung, said he set the date for the economic meeting in the hope that "everything will go smoothly," apparently referring to the nuclear pact.
After returning to Seoul, Lee told reporters that the North requested 400,000 tons of rice aid, which would be discussed during economic talks scheduled just after an April 14 deadline for the North to shut down its sole operating nuclear reactor.
He said North Korea also asked for 300,000 tons of fertilizer that would be addressed at talks between the two countries' Red Cross societies scheduled days before the April deadline.
The meeting in Pyongyang between the two Koreas was the first such Cabinet-level dialogue in seven months, fostered by the North's agreement last month with the U.S. and four other countries to take initial steps toward abandoning its nuclear weapons program.
South Korea has been one of the North's main aid sources since the two nations held their first and only summit in 2000, and this week's meetings were the 20th Cabinet-level talks since then.
But South Korea halted rice and fertilizer shipments to the North after it test-fired a barrage of missiles last July, and relations worsened following North Korea's Oct. 9 underground nuclear test.
The provocations were the most serious challenge yet to South Korea's "sunshine" policy of engagement with its longtime foe, which has been criticized by conservatives for helping prop up the North's totalitarian regime without requiring reforms or disarmament.
On Friday, the two Koreas also agreed to conduct a long-delayed test run of trains on rebuilt tracks through their heavily armed border in the first half of the year. A planned test last year was called off by the North, whose military had said appropriate security arrangements had not been made.
As expected, the North and South also agreed Friday to resume reunions of families divided by the border, with meetings via a video link set for this month and face-to-face encounters in May. The North put the reunions on hold last year after the South suspended aid.