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Warship dispute scuppers rare military talks

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The first inter-Korean military talks in two years came to an early end Thursday after South Korean negotiators demanded an apology from the North for the fatal sinking of a warship in late March.


AFP - The first inter-Korean military talks for two years ended without progress Thursday as Seoul demanded an apology from Pyongyang for the deadly sinking of a warship, the defence ministry said.

The talks at the border truce village of Panmunjom were seen as an opportunity to ease months of tensions, but broke down after about two hours over the fate of the Cheonan corvette.

South Korean officers "strongly urged North Korea to admit to, apologise for and punish those responsible for the attack on the Cheonan warship", the ministry said in a statement.

It also demanded the North "immediately stop its military threats and aggressive behaviour at sea borders".

The North refused to accept the findings of a multinational investigation which blamed the March sinking and the death of 46 sailors on a North Korean torpedo.

The two sides failed to set a date for the next round of talks, a ministry official told Yonhap news agency.

After months of high tension over the ship incident, the North has lately made apparent conciliatory gestures to South Korea and the United States.

Analysts say it is likely seeking stability as it puts in place a plan for an eventual power transfer from ailing leader Kim Jong-Il to his youngest son Jong-Un.

But the North still vehemently denies involvement in the naval tragedy. It describes joint US-South Korean naval exercises being staged as a show of strength as a rehearsal for attack.

South Korean officials "remain unchanged in their ulterior intention to harm the (North), backed by their American master," cabinet newspaper Minju Joson said Thursday, accusing Seoul of trying to spark a nuclear war with the latest joint drill this week.

The South's Defence Minister Kim Tae-Young said North Korean troops have boosted operations since the latest exercise began Monday.

"We have detected signs of possible provocations by North Korea" especially in 11 border areas where the South has set up propaganda loudspeakers, he told a forum.

Seoul installed the loudspeakers as part of its reprisals for the warship sinking but has not yet switched them on.

Jong-Un was this week appointed a four-star general and given two powerful posts in the North's ruling party, which held its largest meeting for 30 years.

Kim said Pyongyang "seems to be mainly focusing on forming a platform for power succession and easing its food shortage and economic troubles."

"It looks like the Workers' Party conference was aimed at building up Kim Jong-Un's guardian group," he said, referring to promotions for the elder Kim's sister and her husband.

The North in recent weeks returned a detained South Korean fishing boat and crew, accepted flood aid from its neighbour, proposed a resumption of reunions for separated families and freed a detained American.

It has also expressed conditional willingness to return to stalled six-nation nuclear disarmament talks. But it wants a US commitment to hold separate talks on signing a permanent peace treaty.

"As long as the US nuclear aircraft carriers sail around the seas of our country, our nuclear deterrent can never be abandoned but should be strengthened further," Pyongyang's Vice Foreign Minister Pak Kil-Yon told the United Nations General Assembly Wednesday.

"The United States is not a defender but a disrupter of peace."

Washington says Pyongyang must improve relations with Seoul and show sincerity about disarmament before the six-party process resumes.

At Thursday's military talks, the North demanded that the South stop activists sending anti-Pyongyang leaflets across the border. It also claimed that the South's warships are crossing the disputed Yellow Sea border.

The South reiterated that "responsible actions" by the North on the Cheonan incident are the key to solving the issues, the ministry statement said.

The so-called Northern Limit Line in the Yellow Sea is a major flashpoint and was the scene of bloody naval clashes in 1999, 2002 and last November.

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