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SEOUL, South Korea - Just two days after North and South Korea resumed cross-border family reunions, the Bush administration said Tuesday that North Korea has agreed to the first official security talks with the United States in 18 months, raising hopes for reduced tension on the Korean Peninsula.

When President Bush came to office, he reversed a Clinton administration policy of cautious engagement with North Korea and suspended negotiations aimed at halting its suspected sales of missile technology. But Bush offered in June to resume talks, and now North Korea has accepted.

Analysts in Seoul say the time is ripe to restart the talks because of a number of signs that the reclusive North Korean leadership is opening to the outside.

The on-again, off-again family reunion program, sponsored by the Red Cross, is one emotional barometer of reconciliation on the divided Korean Peninsula. Plans for this latest round of reunions, the first since February 2001, were frozen after Bush branded North Korea part of a terrorist "axis of evil" in January.

The tough talk provoked a counterattack from Pyongyang, North Korea's capital, and set back Seoul's fragile policy of engaging the North, which already was shaken by the Bush administration's cool attitude toward it. South Korean officials scrambled to mend fences, and resurrecting the family reunions is one of the agreements that special envoy Lim Dong Won negotiated with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il during a visit to Pyongyang in early April.

U.S. and South Korean officials hope that the resumption of talks can lead to lasting security in Northeast Asia. North Korea's homegrown ballistic-missile technology and its suspected nuclear weapons research are seen as a threat to South Korea and Japan.

"It's an opportunity to bring to a close the last chapter of the cold war in Asia," said Brent Choi, a North Korea specialist at the Unification Research Institute, which is run by the leading daily newspaper Joong Ang Ilbo.

South Korean critics of President Kim Dae-jung's policy of engagement have been quick to dismiss the reliability of North Korea's leadership, noting a pattern of fickleness in opening and then closing lines of communication, a view the Bush administration embraced.

Copyright © 2002 Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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