SEOUL, South Korea, April 27 (UPI) — North and South Korea began high-level talks Sunday to discuss their stalled reconciliation process, but the meeting was overshadowed by nuclear tensions that have reached their highest level after Pyongyang’s reported admission that it has nuclear weapons.

The three-day talks in the North’s capital city come just two days after a senior U.S. official said North Korea claimed in last week’s talks in Beijing to have atomic weapons that it might test, sell or use.

In a keynote address at the Cabinet-level talks, the chief South Korean negotiator, Unification Minister Jeong Se-hyun urged North Korea to abandon its alleged nuclear weapons, describing them as a “grave threat” to peace on the peninsula.

If North Korea’s nuclear weapons claim is true, it constitutes a serious violation of a 1992 inter-Korean declaration on denuclearization of the peninsula, Jeong was quoted as saying by officials here. Under the joint declaration, the two Koreas pledged not to test, produce, receive, store, deploy or use nuclear arms.

South Korean officials said they would make all-out efforts during this week’s negotiations to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear ambitions.

Before leaving for Pyongyang earlier Sunday, Jeong said he would use the meeting to “convey our firm stance that it is unacceptable for North Korea to have nuclear weapons” and urge the North to “shift its policies” on the nuclear dispute.

The Pyongyang meeting was the first round of ministerial talks under new South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, who took office in February with a pledge to push for unconditional reconciliation with the North.

“The (Seoul) government is also considering using economic aid as a leverage against the North on the nuclear issue,” a Unification Ministry official told United Press International on condition of anonymity. Shortly ahead of the talks, South Korea announced plans to donate corn and medicine to the hunger-stricken North.

But North Korea repeated that it would not halt its nuclear efforts unless the United States signs a non-aggression treaty, a proposal already rejected by Washington.

Kim Ryong Song, the chief North Korean delegate, just said his country was ready to discuss the nuclear issue with the United State, with no mention about Seoul’s call for nuclear denunciation.

Pyongyang’s communist party newspaper said it was “childish and illogical” for the United States to demand an end to the nuclear program without concluding a non-aggression pact in return.

“In the United States recently, there is laughable talk that even if we abandon our ‘nuclear program’ they cannot provide regime guarantees or compensation,” the Rodong Sinmun said. If Washington pressed demands on Pyongyang without addressing North Korean concerns, “the nuclear problem can hardly be resolved,” it said.

North Korea also said it had been determined to arm itself with “a physical means of deterrence” because the United States refuses to sign a non-aggression treaty.

But there are still some signs of a peaceful resolution to the nuclear crisis as Seoul’s Foreign Ministry confirmed that North Korea made a “bold” proposal to resolve the nuclear crisis at last week’s talks with Washington, with no details.

North Korea’s media said Pyongyang had put forward a “bold” new proposal at last week’s talks in Beijing, but had heard nothing new from Washington. “We are discussing over the North’s proposal,” said a ministry official who requested anonymity.

The inter-Korean ministerial talks, the 10th round this week, has been the highest level dialogue channel between the two to review their reconciliation efforts and discuss cooperation projects under the historic agreement reached at the summit of the their leaders in 2000.

The Korean reconciliation process has also been hampered by fears of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) which has caused panic in many parts of Southeast Asia.

North Korea has suspended an inter-Korean tour project to the North’s mountain resort, citing fears of SARS. There have been no confirmed cases of SARS either in South Korea or North Korea.

When a 38-member South Korean delegation to the Cabinet-level talks arrived in a Pyongyang airport Sunday, North Korean quarantine officers checked the visitors’ temperatures as part of efforts to prevent SARS.

Copyright 2003 by United Press International. All rights reserved.

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