May 15, 2018 / 2:35 AM / 6 months ago

Two Koreas to hold talks as North prepares to shut test site

SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea and South Korea will hold high-level talks on Wednesday to discuss steps needed to uphold the pledge to denuclearise the Korean peninsula, South Korea said.

FILE PHOTO: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un provides guidance with Ri Hong Sop (3rd L) and Hong Sung Mu (L) on a nuclear weapons program in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang September 3, 2017. KCNA via REUTERS/File Photo

The meeting will focus on plans to implement a declaration that emerged from an April 27 inter-Korea summit, including promises to formally end the Koran War and pursue “complete denuclearisation”, the South’s unification ministry, which handles ties with the North, said on Tuesday.

North Korea has said it will dismantle its nuclear bomb test site some time between May 23 and May 25 in order to uphold its pledge to cease tests, its state media reported on Saturday, a month ahead of a planned North Korea-U.S. summit in Singapore.

U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will meet on June 12, a scenario that until recently looked impossible given the insults and threats the two leaders exchanged over the past year as tension rose over the North’s relentless work on its missile and nuclear programmes.

But North Korean leader Kim Jong Un called in a New Year’s speech for a reduction in military tension, beginning a rapid easing of tension.

North Koreans appeared optimistic about the summit, the chief of the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP), David Beasley, told reporters in Seoul after a trip to the North.

“I think they’re hopeful. I think everyone on the ground there was hopeful,” Beasley said when asked whether the North Koreans he met had mentioned anything about the summit.

Beasley, who visited the North from May 8 to May 11, said WFP officials had been granted “unprecedented access” to some areas and had held “open, candid and frank discussions” with officials there.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Sunday the United States would agree to lift sanctions on North Korea if it agreed to completely dismantle its nuclear weapons programme, a move that would create economic prosperity that “will rival” that of South Korea.

Last month, Pompeo became the first known U.S. official to meet North Korean leader Kim, where he helped lay the groundwork for the meeting with Trump.

He returned again to North Korea this month for a second meeting, after which Kim agreed to the release of three American prisoners.

‘SOMETHING BIG’

A South Korean presidential adviser warned that an incremental North Korean approach to denuclearisation at the June 12 summit would not be acceptable to Trump or the South Korean public.

“When Kim Jong Un sees President Trump in Singapore, he should give something big,” the security adviser, Moon Chung-in, said at a conference in Tokyo.

Meanwhile, disarmament experts have raised questions about the safety and verification of North Korea’s shutdown of its nuclear test site.

North Korea has invited international media to witness the destruction of the site, but not technical inspectors, leaving disarmament experts and nuclear scientists wondering how effective the plan is – and whether it will be safe.

On Tuesday, North Korea invited one news agency and one television broadcaster from South Korea to observe the shutdown, the South’s Ministry of Unification said.

South Koreans cannot visit North Korea without an invitation from the North and approval from their government.

Wednesday’s meeting will take place at the Peace House in Panmunjom, on the heavily fortified border between the two Koreas, where the two sides signed their joint-declaration last month, the unification ministry said in a statement.

“Through these high-level talks we will negotiate and implement measures to carry out the Panmunjom Declaration and build sustainable development for inter-Korean relations and permanent peace on the Korean peninsula,” the ministry said.

South Korea’s Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon will lead a team of five at the talks.

North Korea’s 29-member delegation will be led by Ri Son-gwon, chairman of its “Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the country”. Also in the delegation will be Kim Yun-hyok, vice minister of railways, and Won Kil-U, vice minister of physical culture and sports.

Reporting by Christine Kim and Cynthia Kim, Additional reporting by Joyce Lee in SEOUL, Kiyoshi Takenaka in TOKYO; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore, Robert Birsel

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