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Thursday, February 4, 1999 Published at 05:14 GMT

World: Asia-Pacific

South Korea welcomes talks offer

North Korea is still officially at war with its neighbour

South Korea has welcomed a proposal by North Korea to hold wide-ranging political talks - the first for several years.

A spokesman for the South Korean President, Kim Dae-jung, said it was a sign that North Korea was changing for the better.

But Seoul has urged the North to come to the table without pre-conditions.

North Korea on Wednesday offered talks with South Korea but attached conditions - including ending military co-operation with the United States - that Seoul has rejected in the past.

The official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) quoted Kim Yong-sun, secretary of the North's ruling Workers' Party Central Committee, as proposing "inter-Korean high-level political talks in the second half of the year".

[ image: Troops on display, but there are fears of hidden nuclear sites]
Troops on display, but there are fears of hidden nuclear sites
The offer was addressed to more than 100 prominent figures, including President Kim Dae-jung, as well as opposition party leaders and dissidents.

It was delivered in a letter through the Red Cross at the UN truce village of Panmunjom on Wednesday.

The proposal included demands that South Korea abandon military exercises with the United States and repeal anti-communist laws.

Both conditions have been rejected by South Korea in the past.

Kim Yong-sun also wrote that the talks could focus on the issue of holding reunions for families separated when the Korean peninsula was divided into communist North and capitalist South 50 years ago.

South Korean Presidential spokesman Park Jiewon said on Thursday the offer of government-level talks was a step forward.

'Positive improvement'

"It's an improvement North Korea has proposed government-level talks. South and North have had talks mostly on the private-level," he told reporters at the presidential Blue House.

"If we try to look at more of North Korea's positive sides than its negative aspects, there will be a positive improvement in South-North exchanges," he added.

President Kim is seeking to improve ties between the two Koreas by stitching together cultural and business contacts.

North Korea sent a similar letter through the Red Cross in Panmunjon last February, one week before President Kim was inaugurated as president.

But Seoul rejected the conditions and the relationship between the two countries grew more tense in 1998 after a series of intrusions by Pyongyang into South Korean waters, and a North Korean rocket launch which landed in the sea off Japan.

In August the US accused Pyongyang of building an underground complex in the North to revive its nuclear weapons programme.

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