South Korea wrapped up naval drills Thursday with the U.S., Australia and Japan aimed at intercepting illicit weapon shipments in a U.S.-led program targeting nations such as North Korea, which is likely to react angrily.
The one-day maneuvers are South Korea's first active participation in the Proliferation Security Initiative, aimed at deterring trade in weapons of mass destruction and missiles by states including North Korea and Iran.
North Korea has long warned it would consider Seoul's participation in the program as a declaration of war against the North. The North usually makes such warnings when Seoul holds joint military drills with the U.S., which North Korea sees a rehearsal for invasion. Still, the North's state media have so far remained silent on the joint naval drills with the U.S., Japan and Australia.
North Korea has been in contact with the South, however, on another prickly subject, the resumption of stalled tours to a resort inside the isolated North, a South Korean official said Thursday.
The rival Koreas started the tours to the North's scenic Diamond Mountain resort more than a decade ago as part of reconciliation efforts. Seoul halted them in 2008 following the shooting death of a South Korean tourist by a North Korean soldier near the resort.
North Korea has since repeatedly demanded that South Korea resume the tours, which provided a much-needed influx of revenue for the North. Seoul has refused to restart them until its demands for a joint investigation of the shooting are carried out and its tourists' safety guaranteed.
The North sent a message to South Korea on Thursday calling for the two sides to quickly hold working-level talks on the tours, Unification Ministry spokesman Chun Hae-sung said in a statement in Seoul.
Chun could not be reached for comment on whether Seoul will reply to the North's proposal.
The military maneuvers Thursday included 10 vessels and several helicopters in international waters between South Korea and Japan, Seoul's Defense Ministry said. They came a day after Seoul hosted a seminar for 15 participating nations in the southeastern city of Busan, the ministry said. It did not elaborate.
The program has been joined by more than 90 nations since it began in 2003. Seoul said last year it was joining the maritime web after the North conducted its second atomic test.
The drills came amid lingering tension over the sinking of a South Korean warship in March.
In May, a multinational investigation led by Seoul concluded that a torpedo fired by a North Korean submarine sank the 1,200-ton warship. North Korea has denied involvement in the sinking, which killed 46 South Korean sailors.
The sinking has dimmed prospects for the resumption of stalled international talks aimed at dismantling North Korea's nuclear programs. North Korea quit the talks last year, but it has expressed willingness to rejoin the negotiations, which include the U.S., South Korea, China, Japan and Russia.
Seoul and Washington have said the North must first take specific moves to demonstrate its sincerity.
Christopher Hill, a former top U.S. nuclear envoy, said Wednesday that prospects of a nuclear-free Korean peninsula are dimmer than before, Yonhap news agency reported.
"I think it's very clear at this point that it is a more difficult proposition than ever before," Yonhap quoted Hill as saying at an international forum in Seoul. "They have continued to work on their systems for delivering nuclear weapons."
Meanwhile, China informed Seoul of a trip to Beijing by North Korean First Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan, the South Korean Foreign Ministry said, without elaborating.
In Beijing, Chinese nuclear envoy Wu Dawei told reporters Tuesday after meeting with Kim that North Korea appeared to have a positive stance toward resuming the nuclear talks, South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported Wednesday.
The trip came two weeks after North Korean leader Kim Jong Il promoted his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, to four-star general and gave him key political posts aimed at an eventual succession in what would became the country's second hereditary power transition.
The elder Kim took over the authoritarian country in 1994 after the death of his father, national founder Kim Il Sung.
Kim Jong Un made his public debut on Sunday during a massive military parade celebrating the 65th anniversary of the ruling Workers' Party.