North Korea Agrees to Peace Talks

SEOUL, South Korea -- Eager for more outside assistance in the face of famine, North Korea said Friday it will attend preliminary peace talks in New York.

North Korea has never before agreed to peace talks directly involving rival South Korea, which it calls a U.S. puppet. And Friday's announcement was a measure of its desperate need for aid.

The North's agreement came after South Korea and the United States promised $16 million in food aid and Seoul held out the carrot of much more help if the talks are fruitful.

North Korea had been threatening to scuttle the proposed talks involving the United States and China as well as the two Koreas unless it got badly needed U.S. grain.

A "joint briefing on the four-way talks'' will be held in New York on March 5, the North's official Korean Central News Agency said, quoting a Foreign Ministry spokesman.

In the session, officials will explain the format of Korean peace talks, first proposed by U.S. President Bill Clinton and South Korean President Kim Young-sam in April 1996.

The proposed talks are aimed at a permanent peace treaty to replace an armistice that ended the 1950-1953 Korean War. Lacking a peace treaty, the Korean Peninsula technically remains at war. The border between North and South is the world's most heavily armed with 2 million troops standing battle-ready on both sides.

"North Korea will try its best to use the New York talks to get more food aid,'' national television station MBC reported, quoting South Korean government sources.

U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visits Seoul on Saturday to discuss food aid and other policy toward North Korea with South Korean officials, including President Kim.

South Korea says it will provide large-scale assistance for the North once it sits down for full peace talks. The North demands more food aid in return for joining such talks, Seoul officials say.

The New York talks will be led by U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Charles Kartman, Assistant Foreign Minister Song Young-shik of South Korea and North Korea's Assistant Foreign Minister Kim Kye Kwan, Seoul officials said.

After the one-day session, the United States and North Korea will hold a separate meeting, they said.

The Rome-based United Nations World Food Program issued an appeal earlier this month -- the third in a year -- for 110,000 metric tons of grain to help avert a famine this spring. The North suffered severe floods the past two years, which destroyed much of its food harvest.

On Thursday, South Korea said it will donate $6 million in emergency food aid to North Korea. Washington has said it will donate $10 million more.

North Korea had delayed the briefing, initially set for Jan. 29, citing Washington's failure to help it obtain food through a barter deal with a private American company.

The New York talks will take place less than a month after tensions were raised by the defection of Hwang Jang-yop, the highest North Korean official ever to seek asylum in South Korea.