Two Koreas hold first talks since island attack

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The two Koreas Tuesday began their first talks since the North's shelling of a South Korean border island in November sent tensions soaring, Seoul's defense ministry said.

The military talks began at 10 am (0100 GMT) at Panmunjom on the heavily fortified frontier, a ministry spokesman told AFP.

Tuesday's closed-door discussions were to focus mainly on preparations for high-level military talks, possibly between defense ministers, at a date yet to be fixed.

But the South sees it as a chance to test the sincerity of its neighbor's peace overtures in recent weeks after months of confrontation.

Relations have been icy since the South in May accused the North of torpedoing a warship near the disputed Yellow Sea border and killing 46 sailors, a charge it denies.

The November 23 bombardment of South Korea's Yeonpyeong island also near the border, which killed two marines and two civilians, briefly sparked fears of war.

But in an abrupt change of tack this year, Pyongyang has launched a series of appeals for dialogue.

The turnaround came as its key ally China presses for the revival of six-party nuclear disarmament talks to ease overall tensions.

The talks, grouping host China, the United States, the two Koreas, Russia and Japan, are aimed at disarming the North in return for economic and diplomatic gains. They have been stalled since December 2008.

The United States says the North must mend ties with the South before the nuclear dialogue can resume. But the two Koreas remain far apart on who is to blame for the months of tension.

Seoul demands Pyongyang take "responsible measures" over last year's attacks and promise not to repeat them as a precondition for any wider dialogue.

The North denies any involvement in the sinking of the Cheonan warship.

It says its artillery attack on Yeonpyeong was in response to a South Korean live-fire drill there, which dropped shells into waters claimed by the North.

"There is a possibility of the talks ending up confirming each other's stance," a military official was quoted as saying by Yonhap news agency before the colonel-level discussions began.

"The two sides may hold multiple rounds of the preliminary talks."

The South staged a series of military drills after the shelling and began fortifying Yeonpyeong and four other "frontline" islands and reinforcing marines posted there.

A military source quoted by Yonhap said the military plans to increase the size of the marine corps by up to 2,000, to strengthen the islands' defenses.

The bombardment was the first attack on a civilian-populated area in the South since the 1950-53 war.

The military has deployed more K9 self-propelled howitzers, weapons-locating radar systems and guided missiles capable of hitting North Korean artillery hidden in caves on the mainland.

It is also considering deploying ship-to-surface cruise missiles on a 4,500-ton destroyer patrolling the Yellow Sea border area, a source told Yonhap.

The Hyunmu-3A missile has a range of 500 kilometers (300 miles) and is capable of striking the North's surface-to-ship missile units along the maritime border.

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