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N Korea, UN command hold urgent talks

North Korea and the US-led UN Command hold urgent talks amid concerns that the North intends to test-fire a long-range missile.

High-level military officials from North Korea and the US-led UN Command held urgent talks at the border today amid heightened tensions in the region and concerns that the North intends to test-fire a long-range missile. The talks at the village of Panmunjom inside the Demilitarised Zone dividing North and South Korea - the first meetings between general-level military officials since 2002 - were hastily arranged after the North proposed them last week.

"These talks can be useful in building trust and preventing misunderstanding as well as introducing transparency regarding the intentions of both sides," the UN command said in a statement. Relations between the two Koreas are at their lowest point in a decade, with North Korea bristling over the South Korean president Lee Myung-bak's hard-line policy toward Pyongyang. The nations technically remain at war because their three-year conflict in the 1950s ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.

The tensions have intensified in recent weeks amid reports that North Korea is preparing to test a long-range missile believed capable of reaching US territory. Analysts say communist North Korea also wants to capture President Barack Obama's attention at a time when international disarmament talks with the regime remain stalled. Mr Obama is dispatching his envoy for North Korea, Stephen W Bosworth, to Asia this week to discuss the nuclear dispute. Mr Bosworth plans to meet with officials in China, Japan and South Korea, and will consult separately with Russian officials, the state department said. The North last week called its plans a peaceful bid to push its space programme forward by sending a communications satellite into orbit and warned it would "punish" anyone who attempts to disrupt its launch plan.

Neighbouring governments believe the satellite claim may be a cover for a missile launch. The US, South Korea and other neighbouring nations have warned North Korea against firing either a missile or a satellite, saying both would invite international sanctions. North Korea, which in 2006 tested a nuclear weapon and unsuccessfully fired a long-range missile, is banned from engaging in any ballistic missile activity under a UN Security Council resolution. The North, meanwhile, stepped up the rhetoric against South Korea and the US, citing a policy of "confrontation" against the communist country.

"If the US warlike forces opt for reckless military confrontation and provocation of a war of aggression against (North Korea), the latter will mercilessly stamp out aggressors," said vice president of the parliament Yang Hyong Sop, the state-run Korean Central News Agency reported yesterday. The warning comes as the US and South Korea prepare for next week's annual military exercises, drills that North Korea calls a rehearsal for invasion but that Seoul and Washington say are purely defensive.

South Korea's new unification minister, Hyun In-taek, said today that Seoul is ready for dialogue with Pyongyang to improve the "difficult" ties between the neighbouring nations. The two Koreas remain divided by the world's most heavily fortified border, with the US-led UN Command overseeing their 1953 ceasefire. Although other nations contributed forces during the Korean War, US troops are the only combat forces left on the peninsula apart from the South Korean military. The US has 28,500 troops in South Korea.

* AP

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