SEOUL, South Korea – The prime ministers of North and South Korea launched their first talks in 15 years on a harmonious note Wednesday, apparently agreeing to quickly implement economic cooperation projects devised at a summit of their leaders last month.
South Korean Prime Minister Han Duck-soo called for an "immediate implementation of projects that can be carried out soon" at the start of meetings with his North Korean counterpart, Kim Yong Il, according to South Korean Unification Minister Lee Jae-joung.
"South and North Korea should develop into an economic community by further expanding economic cooperation," Han said later at a dinner with the North Koreans.
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Kim said the two sides should build trust to follow through on agreements from last month's summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, according to Lee.
The two sides should "drastically overcome challenges" and properly implement the summit accord, and should make sure it does not just amount to empty rhetoric, Kim said at the dinner.
This week's negotiations, which end Friday, are to focus mainly on economic cooperation, including setting up a joint fishing area around the two Koreas' disputed western sea border and establishing a joint economic area on North Korea's southwestern coast.
The North's premier proposed that cooperation on the country's southwestern coast become a "symbolic project," saying it would help reduce military tensions and contribute to peace and economic growth, Lee said.
The sides also shared the idea of quickly starting regular cargo rail service across their heavily armed border and building joint shipyards in North Korea.
On humanitarian issues, they discussed expanding reunions of separated families. South Korea also urged the resolution of South Korean prisoners of war and civilian abductees held in the North, but the North did not immediately respond.
The high-level talks come amid progress in international efforts to rid North Korea of its nuclear programs, with the communist nation recently beginning to disable its sole operational nuclear reactor under a deal with the U.S., South Korea, China, Japan and Russia.
South Korea believes that promoting reconciliation with North Korea will facilitate a resolution of the nuclear dispute.
Vietnam's Communist Party chief Nong Duc Manh said Wednesday during a visit to Seoul that the North's leader Kim Jong Il had expressed his intent to peacefully resolve the nuclear standoff when Manh visited Pyongyang last month, according to the South Korean president's office.
Manh also said Kim "highly appraised" the accords he signed with South Korea's Roh during their October summit in Pyongyang — only the second such meeting since the Korean peninsula was divided more than half a century ago.
North Korean Premier Kim arrived in Seoul on a direct flight from Pyongyang for the talks, the first between the Koreas' prime ministers since 1992, when they were suspended during an earlier crisis over the North's nuclear weapons program.
Kim is an economic technocrat who served as the country's land and marine transportation minister. He recently visited Vietnam, Malaysia, Cambodia and Laos, signing a series of economic cooperation accords with those countries.
Earlier in the day, dozens of anti-North Korea protesters staged a rally outside the talks' venue — a posh hilltop hotel in eastern Seoul — accusing South Korea of making too many concessions to North Korea and getting little in return. The group set fire to a picture of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and the country's flag.
"Stop lavishing aid on North Korea!" the protesters chanted as riot police stood guard to prevent them from attempting to approach the hotel.