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Monday, 25 March, 2002, 11:42 GMT
South Korean envoy to travel north
North Korea
North Korea is seen as a secretive state
South Korea is sending a presidential envoy to North Korea, in a possible breakthrough for efforts to reduce tensions on the divided peninsula.

Lim Dong-won, a special advisor on national security to President Kim Dae-jung, will travel to Pyongyang in the first week of April.

Projects on hold
Visit of North Korean leader to south
Reunions of divided families
Reopening of rail and road links
Closer economic ties

President Kim said talks between the two Koreas was "essential", not just for the countries themselves but also for improving US and Japanese relations with the communist north.

North Korea broke off dialogue with the South last year, in response to what it saw as hostility from the United States towards Pyongyang.

US President George W Bush has said that North Korea is part of an "axis of evil", accusing it of trying to develop weapons of mass destruction.

Talks agenda

A presidential spokeswoman in Seoul said the visit was being made at South Korea's request "for an exchange of broad opinions".

"We expect the talks to lay the groundwork for a resumption of stalled relations between South and North Korea," said Park Sun-sook.

It is believed that talks might also cover reunions between members of families divided since the 1950-53 Korean War.

South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung, right, is embraced by North Korean leader Kim Jung II
The presidents of North and South met for a historic summit in 2000
But no mention was made of the recent defection of 25 North Koreans to the South through China - and the ensuing crackdown on refugees on the border between China and North Korea.

The South Korean media has carried reports that some officials from the North might visit Seoul during the World Cup football finals in June.

But the South Korean spokeswoman said details of the talks would only be made public after Mr Lim returned to Seoul.

Tense relations

Relations between the two Koreas reached a peak in June 2000 with a historic summit between President Kim and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.

Key dates
June 2000: First ever summit between two Korean leaders
Oct 2000: Kim Dae-jung wins Nobel Peace Prize
Oct 2001: N Korea calls off family reunions
Jan 2002: President Bush says N Korea part of 'axis of evil'
President Kim won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts at reconciliation on the Korean peninsula.

Divided in 1945, the two Koreas share the world's most heavily armed border.

Relations between the two Koreas cooled after US President George W Bush took office and expressed scepticism about the North Korean leader.

In January, relations worsened again when Mr Bush said North Korea was part of "an axis of evil" along with Iran and Iraq.

News of the resumed contacts came as South Korean police briefly detained a German doctor who helped 25 North Koreans defect to the South via China.

Norbert Vollersten was detained as he led a protest outside the Chinese embassy in Seoul.

News of the envoy's mission came as the US and South Korea continued large-scale, joint military exercises which have triggered angry criticism from North Korea.

The BBC's Kevin Kim
"The offer was to prevent an escalation of tension between the Koreas"
See also:

21 Mar 02 | Asia-Pacific
Anger over Korea military exercise
25 Mar 02 | Asia-Pacific
Analysis: North Korea's strategic moves
01 Feb 02 | Asia-Pacific
N Korea hits back at US
26 Jun 01 | Asia-Pacific
China's North Koreans in hiding
20 Mar 02 | Asia-Pacific
'Manhunt' for N Korean defectors
14 Mar 02 | Asia-Pacific
In pictures: Koreans' embassy dash
26 Jul 01 | Asia-Pacific
Kim dismisses 'rogue' status
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