North and South Korea military talks 'break down'

North Korean delegates to the talks North Korea's delegates have been pressing for talks on all cross-border issues

Military talks aimed at easing tension between North and South Korea have broken down, officials in Seoul say.

The talks at the border village of Panmunjom were the first since the North shelled a South Korean island in November, killing four people.

Officials at the talks reportedly failed to reach a consensus on an agenda for higher-level talks.

Earlier, South Korea said it had in principle accepted a North Korean offer to resume talks on humanitarian issues.

These include reuniting families separated by the Korean war, and joint tourism and industrial projects.

South Korea's unification ministry said a date and venue for talks mediated by the Red Cross would be set after the preliminary military talks had ended.

The military talks were intended to lay the groundwork for higher-level discussions, possibly between defence ministers, aimed at easing heightened tensions on the peninsula.

But the talks broke down without agreement on an agenda or even a date for further preliminary talks, an unnamed defence ministry official was quoted by Yonhap as saying.

Analysis

Despite the smiles and handshakes in front of the cameras at the beginning of Tuesday's talks, it was never going to be easy.

Sticking points have included basic details like when the higher-level military talks should be, whether they should involve generals or defence ministers, and crucially, how the matters of attacks on a South Korean warship and island last year should be addressed.

The fact that, according to Seoul, the Pyongyang delegation "walked out" of Wednesday's session without agreeing a date for the next meeting is not a good sign. That they didn't wait to be accompanied through the part of the demilitarised zone controlled by South Korea also suggests a heated atmosphere. It's a highly-sensitive area.

But this latest set back is not necessarily the end of the broader process of dialogue. A number of preliminary meetings were anticipated ahead of the high-level military talks. Further ones could be re-scheduled by officials in the two countries' capitals.

A "break down" is how it's being described by South Korea's defence ministry - but breakdowns can be restarted.

The last in the intermittent programme of temporary reunions of those separated by the 1950-53 Korean War took place shortly before the shelling of South Korea's Yeonpyeong island.

Family reunion talks were last held in 2009 after a two-year hiatus caused by cross-border tensions.

"We conveyed our agreement to hold the Red Cross talks, as it is important for the North and the South to discuss and resolve such issues of humanitarian concerns," said a spokeswoman for South Korea's unification ministry, Lee Jong-joo.

North Korea had proposed that the Red Cross agencies from the two sides meet to discuss two projects that give the North much-needed foreign exchange.

The suspended joint tourism project at Mt Kumgang and the Kaesong industrial complex are both in North Korea, co-managed by South Koreans using workers from the North.

Relations have been extremely tense since 46 South Koreans died when their warship was sunk last March.

Seoul blamed the North for the incident, something Pyongyang denies.

The South is wary of a talks process that wins aid for Kim Jong-il's administration in the North without concessions in return.

South Korea says the North must show "sincerity" before receiving economic assistance. Pyongyang has spoken instead of an "exchange of views".

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