N Korea agrees to talks on treaty

In a historic policy shift by leaders in Pyongyang, the government of North Korea formally agreed last night to enter four-nation talks aimed at finally ending the 1950-1953 Korean War with a formal treaty.

The breakthrough was announced last night in New York after seven hours of negotiations between the foreign ministers of both North and South Korea and a senior official of the US State Department.

It means that talks on setting an agenda and a timetable for full-blown treaty talks will begin in New York on 5 August. For the first time, China will also be invited to participate.

Last night's deal offers real hope that, more than 40 years after the conflict, North Korea will agree to discuss replacing the armistice that ended the fighting with a permanent treaty. The governments involved believe that a treaty should dramatically reduce the tensions that have plagued the Korean peninsula since the war. The frictions between North and South have been long-running sore in the region, and in recent years have occasionally threatened to erupt in renewed hostilities.

A senior North Korean official, displaying an uncharacteristically upbeat mood in public, declared that the talks had achieved a "very important step towards the realisation of peace and stability not only in the Korean pensinsula that will also make a contribution to stability and peace in all of North-east Asia".

The change of heart by Pyongyang - these were the third round of talks on the issue in New York in recent months - was apparently driven by the deepening political crisis in North Korea which has been worsened by conditions in the country of crippling economic crisis and famine.

The contacts had previously been stymied by North Korean demands that any formal talks be linked first to pledges of additional food aid. It became evident last night that the condition had been withdrawn, but the US clearly hinted that aid might be now granted.

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