Seoul: South Korea has accepted a North Korean proposal to hold high-level defence talks following months of soaring tensions, a breakthrough announced after the United States and China urged them to improve communication.

Any talks could prove significant if Seoul and Pyongyang can put aside military and political animosity and lay the groundwork for a resumption of long-stalled international negotiations on ending North Korea's nuclear programmes. Lower-level defence talks last year foundered over the issue of the sinking of a South Korean naval ship in disputed waters.

The agenda this time should include North Korean assurances that it will take "responsible measures" over the ship sinking and the shelling of a South Korean island and not provoke further conflict, said Chun Hae-sung, a spokesman for South Korea's Unification Ministry, which is in charge of inter-Korean affairs.

North Korea launched artillery at a South Korean island in November in an attack that killed four people. It denies, however, attacking the navy ship Cheonan that sank in March, killing 46 sailors.

Inter-Korean relations have been complicated by a power transition under way in the North, where leader Kim Jong-il is believed to be grooming his youngest son Kim Jong-un to succeed him. Some analysts say the ship sinking and the artillery attack were carried out to display the younger Kim's mettle to North Korea's military and bolster his legitimacy as the next leader.

In a letter to South Korea's defence minister on Thursday, North Korea's defence chief proposed holding talks in early February to ease tensions.