SEOUL — South Korea has accepted a North Korean proposal to hold Cabinet-level talks in Pyongyang at the end of the month.
Unification Minister Jeong Se Hyun accepted the offer in a telephone message, his office said today. The talks are scheduled to take place in the North Korean capital from Sunday through Tuesday.
The decision to hold the talks in Pyongyang came days before the United States, North Korea and China are expected to meet in separate talks in Beijing to discuss the North's suspected nuclear weapons programs. Those talks could take place as early as this week.
The announcement of the inter-Korean talks came as an Australian newspaper reported that the United States and at least 10 other countries helped arrange the defections of up to 20 top North Korean officials, including key nuclear scientists, in an operation that began in October.
The Weekend Australian reported that a man it identified as the "father" of the North Korean nuclear program, Kyong Won Ha, was among the defectors and that he is providing intelligence to Western officials.
Kyong and the other officials had escaped to China and went on to other countries with the help of consulates and embassies, the newspaper reported. The U.S. helped set up -- and pay for -- an embassy in Beijing for the Pacific island of Nauru specifically to help move the defectors, though none eventually went to the embassy, the paper said.
It said one organizer of the network was a Washington lawyer named Philip Gagner. He reportedly contacted the president of Nauru in October and asked the country to agree to open embassies in Washington and Beijing, free of charge.
Meanwhile, North Korea continues to send conflicting messages about its nuclear program, issuing a statement Friday that seemed to indicate it had begun reprocessing spent nuclear fuel rods, a step that could enable it to build half a dozen atomic bombs in six months. But a subsequent CIA translation of the statement suggested that the North said it was only preparing to reprocess the rods.
The mixed messages continue to raise concern in South Korea.
On Saturday, about 1,000 South Korean war veterans and activists rallied to protest North Korea's suspected nuclear activities.
The protesters ripped apart an effigy of North Korea's late leader, Kim Il Sung, and burned a North Korean flag and a paper missile emblazoned with the words "nuclear program."