SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korean generals met the U.S.-led U.N. military command in South Korea for the first time in about seven years on Monday after Pyongyang warned at the weekend “arrogant” acts by U.S. troops could spark a war.
Local news reports said the North had protested against joint U.S.-South Korean military drills that will be held from next week and the activities of American troops stationed in South Korea to support its soldiers.
“North Korea argued that holding the joint military training at a moment when the situation on the Korean peninsula is already tense would only raise more tension,” the South’s Yonhap news agency quoted a military source as saying.
Prickly North Korea has stoked tensions in recent weeks by readying a test flight of its longest-range missile, which is designed to carry a weapon as far as Alaska but has never successfully flown, U.S. and South Korean officials say.
North Korea also has severed dialogue with the South and threatened to reduce its neighbor to ashes in anger at President Lee Myung-bak’s policy of cutting off what once had been a free flow of unconditional aid and instead tying handouts to the North’s nuclear disarmament.
In Washington, a U.S. State Department official played down any prospect of the United States postponing the joint exercises with South Korea because of North Korean protest.
“The idea that we would change that planned calendar is not one that anybody has presented to me,” said the official, who spoke to reporters on condition that he not be identified.
Asked if he had any indication of a postponement, the official replied: “None whatsoever.”
The U.N. Command said in a statement the North requested the meeting, which lasted half an hour, to “discuss issues of mutual trust and tension reduction.”
Talks were held at the Panmunjom truce village inside the Demilitarized Zone that has divided the peninsula since the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a ceasefire. The two sides agreed to meet again, it said.
The North’s KCNA news agency on Saturday quoted a North Korean military official as saying: “If the U.S. forces keep behaving arrogantly in the area under the control of the North and the South, the (North’s) Korean People’s Army will take a resolute counteraction.”
The official said U.S. troops had come near the actual border several times over the past two months.
The Pentagon sought to present the meeting in a positive light.
“We think that discussions of this nature can be very useful in building trust and preventing misunderstanding,” Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said. “It is a positive development.”
The border, called the Military Demarcation Line, is at the center of the 4-km-wide (2.5-mile-wide) DMZ — a no man’s land buffer zone. North Korea positions most of its 1.2 million troops near the DMZ.
North Korean, South Korean and U.S. soldiers are on their respective sides of the Military Demarcation Line on a daily basis at Panmunjom, where low-level meetings can be arranged by shouting into a bullhorn to the other side.
U.S.-led U.N. forces signed the armistice in 1953 and the United States has kept troops in the South after the fighting formally ended to deter North Korea from attacking again.
There are about 28,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea to support its 670,000 soldiers.
The new U.S. government will be sending Stephen Bosworth, its special envoy for North Korea, to the region this week with stops in China, Japan and South Korea, the State Department said.
In Seoul, Bosworth will likely meet Wi Sung-lac, a specialist in North American affairs and adviser to the foreign minister, who was named on Monday as South Korea’s new chief to six-country talks on ending the North’s nuclear program.
Additional reporting by Jack Kim and Kim Junghyun in Seoul and Andrew Gray and Arshad Mohammed in Washington; Editing by John O'Callaghan