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Koreas set for first military talks since island attack

 Military officers from South and North Korea were set to hold working-level talks on Tuesday to lay the groundwork for a meeting of higher-level officials, the first such cross-border meeting since the North's deadly artillery attack on a border island last November, officials here said.

   The colonel-level talks to be held at the border truce village of Panmunjom separating the two Koreas are aimed at setting the date, place and agenda for higher-level talks, possibly at the level of defense ministers.

   But the South's defense ministry said it won't agree to ministerial-level talks unless North Korea apologizes and takes "responsible measures" for the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island and the torpedo attack of a South Korean warship last March.

   The preliminary talks will be led by Col. Moon Sang-gyun of the South and Col. Ri Son-kwon of the North, who have served as representatives for working-level military talks from each side for years.

   Tensions persist on the Korean Peninsula after the North's artillery strike on Yeonpyeong Island killed two marines and two civilians. The bombardment came after a multinational investigation concluded that North Korea torpedoed a South Korean warship, killing 46 sailors.

   North Korea has so far denied any involvement in the torpedo attack of the Cheonan warship. The communist regime has also claimed that its artillery attack on Yeonpyeong was legitimate because the South provoked first by holding a live-fire drill near the island with some shells falling on the North's side.

   South Korean military officials were still cautious about the prospects of the working-level meeting.

   "There is the possibility that the preliminary talks may end at a level where the two sides confirm each other's stance," a military official said. "The two sides could hold several rounds of preliminary talks."

   After sharply raising tensions with the two attacks last year, North Korea started this year with what South Korean officials called a "peace offensive" by repeatedly calling for talks with the South.

   Last month, South Korea accepted the North's proposal for the preliminary military talks. The development followed a U.S.-China summit, during which the leaders of Washington and Beijing agreed that inter-Korean dialogue is necessary before resuming the six-party talks.

   The six-party talks, which involve the two Koreas, the U.S., China, Japan and Russia, have been suspended since late 2008 when North Korea walked away in protest of U.N. and international sanctions imposed on it over nuclear and missile tests.