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 agreement to take steps toward abandoning its nuclear weapons program.
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.
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 Cabinet-level dialogue in seven months, fostered by the North's disarmament agreement last month with the U.S. and four other countries.
South Korea has been one of the North's main aid sources since the two nations held their first and only summit in 2000.
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.
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.
Meanwhile, South Korean Foreign Minister Song Min-soon was to discuss North Korea Friday with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Washington and with President Bush's national security adviser, Stephen Hadley.
The Feb. 13 accord calls for the North to close its main nuclear reactor within 60 days, in exchange for aid. A much larger shipment of aid — about $250 million worth — would follow once the North had declared all its nuclear programs and begun to disable them.
Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte said Friday that North Korea will have to take substantial steps to abandon its nuclear weapons ambitions before the U.S. considers lifting sanctions or removing it from the list of nations sponsoring terrorism.
"This is not a process that we would expect to move very rapidly," said Negroponte, who met with Japanese officials earlier on Friday in Tokyo. "There are many other aspects of compliance... that would have to have moved forward substantially before you could expect significant movement."
As part of the nuclear agreement, on Monday and Tuesday in New York, the lead U.S. envoy at the nuclear talks, Christopher Hill, and his North Korean negotiating counterpart, Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan, are to discuss first steps toward establishing normal ties after decades of hostility that followed the 1950-53 Korean War.
On Thursday, the North's No. 2 leader, Kim Yong Nam, called for the two Koreas to work together to reunify the peninsula, which was divided after World War II and remains officially at war since the Korean War ended in a cease-fire, not a peace treaty.