'Sincere dialogue' aim

His comments come as the nominee to be South Korea's top official in charge of relations with the North said he would make efforts to revive talks.

Hyun In-taek, the unification minister-designate, told a parliamentary confirmation hearing on Monday that he wants to resume stalled talks with the North, saying "a sincere dialogue'' can resolve the current deadlock.

North Korea said last month that it was cancelling all political and military agreements with South Korea in a further sign of deteriorating relations.

The North and South have remained technically at war because the 1950-53 Korean War ended without a peace treaty, although the two countries have signed various agreements over the years.

A series of deals were reached during a brief period of calm that followed a landmark North-South summit in June 2000, which led to reunions of separated families, as well as the introduction of communication systems to defuse military tensions and rail and road links across their heavily-armed border.

Worsening ties

Late last year, however, Pyongyang announced it was closing most border traffic between the two states and suspending several joint projects.

North Korea has cancelled all political and military ties with the South [AFP]
Both sides have deployed thousands of soldiers along the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) that divides the two countries, with almost 30,000 US military personnel based in South Korea as well.

But analysts say a major conflict between the two nations is not expected and the North's sabre-rattling is said to be aimed at pressing Seoul to drop its hardline policy, as well as grabbing the attention of the new US administration of Barack Obama.

Meanwhile, news reports citing intelligence sources said the North was making moves to test its Taepodong-2 missile, which has never flown successfully but is supposedly designed to hit US territory.

The reports last week added that Pyongyang may also fire short-range missiles towards a disputed sea border with the South.

According to a former senior US diplomat who recently travelled to Pyongyang, the North wants to advance nuclear disarmament steps if its aid demands are met, but it played down concerns over possible missile launches.

Stephen Bosworth, a former US ambassador to South Korea, told reporters in Beijing on Saturday that senior North Korean officials he met in his five-day visit to the country would not confirm or deny any missile launch plans.

Talks to end North Korea's nuclear programme have been stalled for months with Pyongyang complaining that aid promised in a deal it reached with China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States in return for disabling its nuclear facilities, was not being delivered.

The five countries want Pyongyang to accept a verification system to check claims it made about its nuclear programme before delivering the promised energy aid.