The two Koreas agreed to resume stalled high-level talks later this month, officials said Thursday, in the first concrete sign of easing tensions on the divided peninsula after the North signed a breakthrough disarmament agreement.
The Cabinet-level talks, the highest dialogue channel between the two Koreas, will be held in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, from February 27 through March 2, according to a joint statement adopted at a lower-level meeting in the North Korean border city of Kaesong.
South and North Korea have held 19 high-level meetings since 2000, but they have been suspended for seven months amid chilled relations following North Korea's missile launches in July and nuclear test in October.
The two sides "affirmed each other's will to continue developing South-North relations," the statement said.
Cabinet-level talks, which usually serve as a forum for discussion on Seoul's aid to the impoverished North, could lead to a resumption of the regular delivery of rice and fertilizer to the communist nation. South Korea suspended its aid after the July missile tests.
South Korean delegate Lee Kwan-se said the planned talks will help "advance reconciliation and cooperation between the South and the North, and to promote peace on the Korean peninsula."
"The North side, just as we did, wanted to restore South-North relations and resume dialogue to discuss pending issues," Lee said, according to pool reports by South Korean journalists.
The agreement to restart the inter-Korean talks comes after the nuclear pact, reached Tuesday among the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States.
The disarmament pact requires North Korea to seal it main nuclear reactor, allow international inspectors and begin accounting for other nuclear programs within 60 days. Within that time, more talks are planned on ending the hostilities between North Korea and the U.S. and Japan.
In return, North Korea will receive 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil, a modest down payment on a promised 1 million tons in oil or aid of a similar value if it ultimately disarms. One million tons of oil is more than two-thirds of North Korea's entire oil consumption in 2004, according to the CIA Factbook.
The aid package is worth about US$250 million at current prices.
South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun and his U.S. counterpart George W. Bush agreed during a telephone conversation that "they were now at a starting point to kick-start the process of resolving the North Korea nuclear issue," Roh's office said in a statement Thursday.
The two leaders also "stressed that each country should sincerely implement" the nuclear deal, according to the statement.
South Korea's Foreign Minister Song Min-soon had similar telephone discussions with his U.S. and Chinese counterparts, and planned to talk with the Japanese and Russian foreign ministers, the Foreign Ministry said.
Both Roh and Song are on a European tour.
In Washington, Bush said Wednesday that the disarmament pact was "a good first step."
"There's a lot of work to be done to make sure that the commitments made in this agreement become reality," he told a news conference. "But I believe it's an important step in the right direction."
While the nuclear agreement marks a turnabout for the North, it still faces potentially years of trouble-filled negotiations.
No timetable was set for North Korea, which has a history of back-pedalling on agreements, to declare all of its nuclear programs and ultimately dismantle them.
On Thursday, China urged all the parties to honor the agreement.
"The six-party talks have made an important step forward and the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula has entered a substantive stage," China's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said. "We hope all parties can honor their commitments and implement the initial actions."
The two Koreas remain technically at war since the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a cease-fire, but their relations have warmed significantly since the one-and-only summit between their leaders in 2000.