The two Koreas will take "practical steps" to resolve the nuclear crisis diplomatically, but not before the right conditions are established, said a joint statement released after the talks in Seoul on Thursday. It did not elaborate on those steps.

 

South Korea said it would give food to its impoverished communist neighbour and the sides agreed to hold military talks.

 

"The South and North will take practical steps for the resolution of the nuclear problem peacefully and through dialogue for the ultimate goal of the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula as soon as the atmosphere is established," the joint statement said.

 

North Korea has demanded for several months that Washington withdraw what it called a hostile policy against it as a precondition for resuming the talks. Its leader said last week that such a move could start with treating his country as a partner.

US nuclear weapons

Pyongyang has not elaborated what it wanted from Washington, except demanding the pullout of US nuclear weapons from the Korean peninsula.

The United States used to have nuclear weapons on the peninsula but says it no longer does.

 

South Korea agreed to provide food aid to the North on humanitarian grounds but left the decision on the quantity to later talks. Seoul is expected to provide 400,000 tonnes to match the amount provided last year.

 

South Korea and the US have
pledged food aid for the North

The two sides also agreed to hold a new round of military talks and the next round of ministerial talks at Mount Paektu, which straddles the North's border with China.

 

The two Koreas were meeting in Seoul amid growing optimism North Korea might return to the talks with China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the US after a year of deadlock and recent conciliatory gestures from Pyongyang and Washington.

 

The US said on Wednesday that it would give 50,000 tonnes of food aid to the North, describing it as humanitarian and not politically motivated to lure Pyongyang to the table. But analysts saw a bigger picture.

 

"It's hard to believe the timing is just coincidental," said Joseph Cirincione, a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace non-proliferation expert.

 

Troubled waters

 

When North and South Korea began their 15th round of the talks on Wednesday on improving ties, the main focus was on whether Seoul could put more pressure on Pyongyang to make a firm commitment on returning to the nuclear talks.

 

Chinese President Hu Jintao may visit the North in early July and get a specific commitment from Pyongyang on returning to the six-party talks, South Korea's Yonhap news agency said on Thursday quoting South Korean and Japanese sources.

 

Asked about the report, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said in Beijing: "I haven't heard of such a thing."

 

Earlier, South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun met the North Korean delegates at the presidential Blue House and called for an early resolution of the nuclear crisis.

 

The US's Christopher Hill called 
for another meeting soon

North Korean Cabinet Councillor Kwon Ho-ung said on Wednesday his country was prepared to give up all nuclear weapons if Washington treated it with friendship.

 

That echoed remarks by leader Kim Jong-il last week when he met South Korean Unification Minister Chung Dong-young.

 

The top US negotiator to the nuclear talks, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, urged Pyongyang to set a date for the six-party talks soon.

Washington ready

"If we can agree on a date - I hope in the month of July - the US side looks forward to returning to the negotiating table to conclude these talks with the sense of respect and equality that all good negotiations must have," Hill wrote on the bulletin board of the US embassy in South Korea's website.

 

"Washington is ready to take action," Hill wrote, reiterating he would be "very happy" to meet Kim Jong-il.

 

In a sign of the North's sensitivity about human rights, North Korea's official KCNA news agency described a defector US President George Bush met this month as "human trash" and said the meeting deliberately threw a wet blanket over efforts to restart talks on Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions.