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Last Updated: Friday, 13 July 2007, 09:19 GMT 10:19 UK
N Korea's military seeks US talks
File image of North Korean soldier in Panmunjom
A peace deal has still not been signed to end the Korean War
North Korea's military has called for direct talks with US forces to discuss "peace and security on the Korean peninsula", state media reports.

The talks, to be attended by a UN representative, could take place at a mutually acceptable place and time, a statement from KCNA news agency said.

But it also warned that US pressure could derail a key disarmament deal.

Under the deal, North Korea agreed to end its nuclear programme in return for fuel aid and political incentives.

UN inspectors are currently heading to North Korea to monitor the shutdown of the North's main nuclear reactor at Yongbyon.

US Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, Washington's chief envoy to North Korea, said on Friday that he wanted the Yongbyon reactor to be disabled by the end of this year.

No pressure

North Korea's proposal reportedly came from the chief of the military mission at the truce village of Panmunjom, which is located in the demilitarized zone that divides the two Koreas.

"The Korean People's Army side proposes having talks between the DPRK [North Korea] and US militaries, to be attended by a UN representative," the statement said.

But the statement also told the US not to pressurise North Korea "under the pretext of the nuclear issue", warning that it would boost defensive measures if this was the case.

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It is unclear why the North has chosen to make these comments now, and there has so far been no immediate response from the US to the proposal of military talks.

US and North Korean military officials already hold general-level meetings, about the administration of the ceasefire that ended the Korean War, but analysts say this latest request by the North is noteworthy because it appears to widen the remit for military discussions.

The comments have been interpreted as being an attempt to discuss a formal peace treaty on the Korean peninsula.

Despite a ceasefire being signed to end the conflict in 1953, this has never been replaced by a peace treaty, leaving the region technically in a state of war.

But US envoy Mr Hill told Reuters on Friday: "I want to emphasise that we're not going to be reaching any peace arrangement on the peninsula ahead of denuclearisation."

Currently the main forum for discussions between Pyongyang and Washington is the ongoing six-party talks, which involve delegates from South Korea, Japan, China and Russia as well as North Korea and the US.

Bilateral talks do sometimes occur on the sidelines of these discussions, but between political rather than military representatives.

The latest round of six-party talks are set to resume in Beijing on Wednesday.

IAEA mission

UN inspectors have set off for North Korea for the first working visit by an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) team since Pyongyang expelled monitors in 2002.

Nine members of the IAEA team left Vienna late on Thursday. They will make a brief stop in Beijing, from where they will fly to North Korea on Saturday. A tenth expert is expected to join the group later.

Leaving Vienna, leader Adel Tolba told the Associated Press news agency that the team members were optimistic about their mission.

"We have a reason to believe that it will be successful," he said.

North Korea - which shocked the world with its first nuclear test in October 2006 - has strongly indicated that it will consider starting to shut down its key nuclear reactor, Yongbyon, as soon as the first shipment of aid arrives.

A South Korean vessel carrying aid - 6,200 tons of fuel oil - set sail on Thursday and is due to dock in North Korea's Sonbong port on Saturday.

Under the February deal, North Korea is to receive 50,000 tons of energy aid for closing Yongbyon and another 950,000 tons for closing and dismantling all its nuclear facilities.

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