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North Korea Nuclear Agreement Paves Way To Warmer South-North Ties

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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) _ North and South Korea are restoring ties during talks this week following the communist country's pledge to shut down its nuclear reactor, paving the way for restoration of aid to the North and reunions for families split by the divided peninsula.

The talks, scheduled to start Tuesday in Pyongyang, will be the first Cabinet-level meetings between the two nations since the North conducted a series of missile tests in July. Relations deteriorated further in October after North Korea tested a nuclear weapon.

After the North agreed to shut down its main nuclear reactor by April 14, the two nations almost immediately announced they would restart high-level talks.

Both governments may feel pressure to improve relations quickly, in advance of South Korea's presidential contest this year.

President Roh Moo-hyun, a liberal strongly supportive of engagement with the North, has seen his popularity plummet recently. Critics regard him as a bungling leader who has failed to improve the economy and isolated the country from key allies like the United States.

Conservative candidates from the main opposition Grand National Party _ which has called for a tougher line against the North _ appear to have an unassailable lead in opinion polls, although the election is scheduled for Dec. 19.

North Korea regularly denounces the GNP, urging South Koreans to keep them out of power.

The rise of the GNP likely helped persuade North Korea to accept the disarmament-for-aid deal, said Kim Tae-woo of South's Korea Institute for Defense Analyses. South Korea's liberals, meanwhile, probably believe a summit could help them keep the presidency, he said.

The North ``may try to create a good environment for the inter-Korean summit meeting,'' said Kim. But he warned that ``after the presidential election, I'm afraid everything may go back to the original point.''

The leaders of the two Koreas last met in 2000 in Pyongyang, the start of a historic reconciliation between the sides that remain technically at war since the Korean War ended in a 1953 cease-fire that has never been replaced by a peace treaty.

Song Min-soon, South Korea's foreign minister, said Monday that a second summit could lead to a peace deal between the two nations.

``These kind of efforts will help create a situation where (South Korea) can play an active and leading role in setting an order of peace for the entire northeast Asia region,'' Song told an annual meeting of ambassadors in Seoul.

At the inter-Korean talks this week, the sides are expected to discuss South Korea's humanitarian aid to its neighbor, including rice and fertilizer. South Korea will also seek to resume reunions of families split by the North-South border, which the North put on hold last year after aid was suspended.

South Korean officials are preparing to give 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil _ valued at $21.3 million _ to the North, said Yang Chang-seok, a spokesman for the Unification Ministry. The North will receive the oil for shutting down its reactor.

The oil is part of the 1 million tons promised North Korea for dismantling its entire nuclear program, under this month's agreement.

Peter Beck, who studies northeast Asia for the International Crisis Group, warned that South Korea should be careful to tie aid to North Korean disarmament.

If, Beck said, North Korea ``can get the assistance they need for doing virtually nothing, then why go through all the pain and the hassle of the whole denuclearization process?''
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