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Koreas back in high-level negotiations

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SEOUL, South Korea — A five-member government delegation from South Korea traveled to North Korea on Tuesday for three days of high-level talks on easing tensions between the two countries, Seoul officials said.

The talks, the second since late last month, aim to follow up on an accord reached at a historic summit in June, when leaders of the two Koreas pledged to work together to promote peace and eventual reunification.

The unprecedented summit between the two Koreas provided the best hope yet for peace on the divided peninsula, the world's last Cold War frontier.

"We have taken a great first step forward . . . but we still have a long way to go to achieve national reconciliation, co-prosperity, peace and unification," South Korean Unification Minister Park Jae-kyu said in a statement issued in Pyongyang, the North's capital. A copy of Park's statement was released in Seoul.

Park, accompanied by 20 assistants and 10 reporters, arrived in Pyongyang aboard a chartered commercial plane after a 50-minute flight Tuesday.

South Korean officials said key discussion points include opening a military hotline, a detailed schedule to reconnect a railway across the heavily armed border and the first-ever meeting between the defense ministers of the two sides.

Officials also were to discuss an investment protection and double taxation treaty and ways to resolve disputes stemming from future economic exchange, local media quoted unidentified government sources as saying.

In the first round of talks in Seoul, the Koreas agreed to relink a major cross-border rail line that was cut off shortly before the 1950-53 Korean War, but details have yet to be worked out.

The Koreas were divided into the communist North and the pro-Western South in 1945. The 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty.

South Korea wants to break ground for the railway project jointly with North Korea around Sept. 15. The work requires clearing tens of thousands of mines inside the demilitarized zone that separates the two sides.

Another important topic expected to be discussed in Pyongyang is scheduling a visit to Seoul for North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

He has openly promised to send one of his close confidants, Kim Yong Sun, to South Korea in September to discuss his visit to the South Korean capital. Kim Jong Il's visit is a key part of the inter-Korea summit agreement.

As part of the agreement, South Korea plans this weekend to send back 63 convicted North Korean spies who were freed after serving long prison terms.

Japan has criticized South Korea's plan to repatriate at least one of the convicted spies, a man who testified in 1985 that he helped kidnap a Japanese cook in 1980. Seoul had no immediate reaction to Japan's criticism.

South Korea also plans to raise the issue of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of South Koreans believed to be living in the North against their will. Seoul officials say tens of thousands of South Korean prisoners of war never returned home after the war ended. Citing defectors, they believe about 300 may still be there.

The Seoul government also says North Korea abducted 3,756 South Koreans after the war ended. All but 454 of them — mostly fishermen — were sent back to the South.

Pyongyang denies the allegation, calling it a smear campaign.

In another sign of thawing relations, a South Korean fishing boat that drifted into North Korean waters with navigational problems was returned Tuesday. In the past, many South Korean ships that crossed the border could not come back, with the North holding them and their crews on spying charges.