South Korea offers talks with North Korea next month

SEOUL (AFP) - A top South Korean official on Monday offered to hold high-level talks with North Korea in January to discuss "mutual concerns", including a reunion of the families separated by the Korean War.

Mr Ryoo Kihl Jae, the South's Unification Minister in charge of North Korea affairs, said he was willing to meet in Seoul or Pyongyang for the rare high-level talks.

"I hope that the North will show active response to this offer," Mr Ryoo said in a press conference. "We are willing to discuss any issues of mutual concern," he added, saying that a formal proposal had been sent to his North Korean counterpart Kim Yang Gon.

Such mutual concerns include a reunion of families separated by the 1950-1953 Korean War and various events to mark the 70th anniversary of the division of the peninsula, he said. "We need dialogue and cooperation to implement such projects... I hope the talks will help ease the pain of the separated families before the Lunar New Year," he said, referring to the traditional holiday that falls on Feb 19.

The last round of formal high-level talks was held in February and resulted in the North hosting a rare union of relatives separated by the Korean War.

The two Koreas had earlier agreed to restart dialogue when a top-ranking North Korean delegation made a surprise visit to the Asian Games held in the South in October.

The unusual trip raised hopes of a thaw, but was followed by a series of minor military clashes along the border that renewed tensions and talks never materialised.

Ties were strained further when the North angrily slammed the South for allowing its activists to send anti-Pyongyang leaflets across the border via hot air balloons.

Seoul rejected Pyongyang's demand to ban such exercises, saying there is no legal ground to stop free activities by citizens.

Mr Ryoo did not address the issue on Monday, leading some observers to question whether the North would accept his proposal.

"What the North wants from the South is some kind of assurance... to stop the leaflets so I am not sure if the North would embrace the offer easily," said Mr Hong Hyun Ik, an analyst at the Sejong Institute think tank.

But Pyongyang must be "feeling very cornered" by the ongoing cyber war with the US over the hacking of Sony Pictures in November, which may prompt the North to reach out to Seoul to defuse tension, he added.

"Kim Jong Un's New Year address should be closely watched to get a clue on whether the North seeks to improve ties or not," Mr Hong said.

The isolated nation has suffered a mysterious Internet outage for the past week after Washington vowed retaliation over the crippling cyber attack on Sony - the studio behind the movie The Interview.

The comedy about a fictional plot to assassinate Mr Kim enraged the North, which slammed it as "an act of war".

Washington blames Pyongyang for launching the attack on Sony. The North denied involvement and accused the US of shutting its major Internet websites.

The North also faces growing pressure to improve its dismal human rights record as the UN steps up a campaign to refer Pyongyang to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.

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