S. Korea rejects North’s call for earlier talks


SEOUL — South Korea on Monday rejected a push by the North to bring forward military talks by 10 days, saying it was not enough time to prepare for their first dialogue since the North’s deadly attack against a border island last year. Pyongyang sent a message to the South’s defense ministry at the weekend calling for the preliminary talks, which Seoul has suggested take place at the Panmunjom truce village on Feb. 11, to start on Tuesday.

It was not immediately clear why the North wanted an earlier date. Talks at the military and political level between the rival Koreas are routinely set after proposals and counterproposals as the two sides vie for higher bargaining positions and rarely break down over scheduling conflicts.

Such trouble is not anticipated this time either, a defense ministry official said.

North Korea has agreed to discuss the shelling of the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong in November and the sinking of a South Korean navy ship in March that Seoul blames on Pyongyang. Pyongyang says the South provoked the island attack by test-firing shells into its waters, and says it had nothing to do with the sinking of the warship Cheonan. The working-level preliminary talks are meant to set the agenda for a more senior meeting, possibly at the ministerial level.

Tensions have risen on the divided peninsula over the past 12 months, with the two attacks on the South as well as the North’s revelations of big advances in its nuclear program.

But the main allies of the two Koreas — the United States and China — have nudged the neighbors back to the negotiating table to defuse tensions in a region which is responsible for one-sixth of the world’s economy.

South Korea wants to take a two-track approach to dialogue with the North — one to discuss the two attacks, and the other to see how to move forward on the stalled six-party aid-for-disarmament talks. Pyongyang has yet to respond to the South’s proposal for bilateral nuclear talks.

The North also said it wants to return to six-party talks with regional powers aimed at compensating it in return for a pledge to end its nuclear ambitions in a move analysts see as an attempt to secure aid to help its struggling economy.