Bosworth says that kick-starting negotiations will require 'specific and concrete actions' from North Korea [Reuters]

North Korea has proposed holding talks with rival South Korea, the defence ministry in Seoul, the capital of South Korea, has said.

Thursday's offer to hold working-level military talks is a further sign of easing tensions on the peninsula.

The two Koreas have been in a stand-off since Seoul, with Washington's backing, accused North Korea of torpedoing its warship in March, killing 46 sailors. The North denies the charge.

The apparent thaw in ties comes as the North struggles to deal with the impact of months of flooding on its already weak economy and prepares for political succession as the health of its leader, Kim Jong-il, deteriorates.

Succession

Diplomats said on Wednesday that a conference of the Workers' Party, which was meant to bring together the North's political elite for first time in 30 years, had probably been postponed, due to what the South said were "internal problems."

Some diplomats and an aid group have said the most likely cause for the delay was flooding, although media reports have also speculated Kim's health or disagreements over a reshuffle of the power structure could be holding up the start.

Heavy rain in North Korea over the past two months has hit food production that even in a good year falls a million tonnes short of the amount needed to feed its 23 million people.

The North proposed that the two sides discuss the Northern Limit Line, the de facto sea border off their west coast, and Seoul's plan to fly anti-Pyongyang leaflets into the North, a defence ministry official said.

Such talks have not been held since the warship sinking.

The apparent thaw has prompted the start of shuttle diplomacy between regional nuclear envoys, fuelling speculation of a resumption in aid-for-disarmament talks.

On Wednesday, US envoy, Stephen Bosworth, arrived in Beijing in a bid to restarting stalled negotiations on North Korea's nuclear disarmament.

Bosworth said that no quick breakthroughs are likely in wooing North Korea back to nuclear disarmament talks although the US remains open to a direct meeting.

"It is going to take some time," Bosworth said.

Meanwhile, the United Nations Command (UNC) and the North Korean military were due to conduct a fifth-round of meetings at the border truce village Panmunjom on Thursday.

The UNC said the meetings were being held to discuss the date, agenda and protocols for talks on armistice issues related to the sinking of the Cheonan corvette in March.

Shift after China trip

Seoul and Washington responded to the sinking of the Cheonan by staging series of joint military exercises off the peninsula, and by squeezing the North's economy with tougher sanctions.

Pyongyang threatened to retaliate with force and fired a barrage of artillery off its coastline toward a maritime border, but there have been signs of a thaw since Kim's surprise trip to ally China last month.

Analysts say Kim went to China in search of economic aid for his cash-strapped economy and to win political support for his son Kim Jong-un's succession.

Seoul this week announced its first substantial aid package to its neighbour in more than two years after months of severe flooding that has killed dozens, destroyed thousands of homes and devastated farmland.

The North Korea also agreed to discuss resumption of reunions of families separated by war.

Source: Agencies