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Talks boost US hopes for Korean reunification

The United States Defence Secretary, William Cohen, predicted the imminent reunification of the Korean peninsula yesterday morning, minutes after South Korean soldiers exchanged warning shots with a North Korean patrol in the demilitarised zone (DMZ) between the two countries.

"We're very close to the finishing line, seeing a united and free Korea," Mr Cohen told American soldiers of the United Nations Command at the truce village of Panmunjom, the only crossing-point along the DMZ, where troops of both sides openly face one another across a complex of meeting rooms, observatories and propaganda boards. "If they can read my lips I would hope they would see the futility of putting up signs that try to promote propaganda of a failed and failing system," he said.

Less than an hour earlier, 65 miles to the east, South Korean soldiers fired over the heads of soldiers of the Korean People's Army which had crossed into the southern sector of the DMZ. The half dozen North Korean troops returned warning shots, before retreating. Minor violations of the DMZ are not uncommon, and the North provoked fury in Seoul last year when one of its submarines landed commandos in the South, but it was the first time this year that live rounds had been exchanged.

The incident comes amid growing optimism that, 44 years after the truce which brought an end to the Korean War, the two sides may soon begin talks aimed at forging a permanent peace treaty for the peninsula. Next Wednesday, at a meeting in New York, North Korean diplomats have promised to present their reply to a proposal for four-way talks involving the two Koreas, the US and China.

For the last two years, the North has been suffering from severe food shortages which are said by international relief agencies to be on the verge of turning into a full-scale famine. On Monday the UN launched an appeal for $126m (pounds 77m) of food, agricultural supplies and medicine. South Korea delivered $6m yesterday, as the country's President, Kim Young Sam, hinted that more would be forthcoming if Pyongyang agreed to talks.

"Through the proposed meeting, North Korea will be able to gain political stability and promote its economic interests," he told a meeting of the Inter-Parliamentary Union in Seoul. "I urge North Korea to respond in a sincere manner as soon as possible."