North Korea holds rare DMZ meeting with UN forces

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The Independent Online

North Korean generals met the US-led UN military command in South Korea for the first time in nearly seven years today after Pyongyang warned at the weekend "arrogant" acts by US troops could spark a war.

Local news reports said the North had protested against joint US-South Korean military drills that will be held from next week and the activities of American troops stationed in South Korea to support its soldiers.

"North Korea argued that holding the joint military training at a moment when the situation on the Korean peninsula is already tense would only raise more tension," the South's Yonhap news agency quoted a military source as saying.

Prickly North Korea has stoked tensions in recent weeks by readying a test flight of its longest-range missile, which is designed to carry a weapon as far as Alaska but has never successfully flown, US and South Korean officials have said.

North Korea also has severed dialogue with the South and threatened to reduce its neighbour to ashes in anger at President Lee Myung-bak's policy of cutting off what once had been a free flow of unconditional aid and instead tying handouts to the North's nuclear disarmament.

The UN Command said in a statement the North requested the meeting, which lasted half an hour, to "discuss issues of mutual trust and tension reduction."

Talks were held at the Panmunjom truce village inside the Demilitarised Zone that has divided the peninsula since the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a ceasefire. The two sides agreed to meet again, it said.

The Pentagon was upbeat about the meeting.

"We think that discussions of this nature can be very useful in building trust and preventing misunderstanding," Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said. "It is a positive development."

In contrast, the North's KCNA news agency on Saturday quoted a North Korean military official as saying: "If the US forces keep behaving arrogantly in the area under the control of the North and the South, the (North's) Korean People's Army will take a resolute counteraction."

The official said US troops had come near the actual border several times over the past two months.

The border, called the Military Demarcation Line, is at the centre of the 2.5-mile-wide DMZ - a no man's land buffer zone. North Korea positions most of its 1.2 million troops near the DMZ.

North Korean, South Korean and US soldiers are on their respective sides of the Military Demarcation Line on a daily basis at Panmunjom, where low-level meetings can be arranged by shouting into a bullhorn to the other side.

US-led UN forces signed the armistice in 1953 and the United States has kept troops in the South after the fighting formally ended to deter North Korea from attacking again.

There are about 28,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea to support its 670,000 soldiers.

The new US government will be sending Stephen Bosworth, its special envoy for North Korea, to the region this week with stops in China, Japan and South Korea, the State Department said.

In Seoul, Bosworth will likely meet Wi Sung-lac, a specialist in North American affairs and adviser to the foreign minister, who was named on Monday as South Korea's new chief to six-country talks on ending the North's nuclear programme.