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Asia-pacific

North, South Korea hold first high-level talks in years

© afp

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2014-02-12

North and South Korean officials held their highest-level talks since 2007 on Wednesday, seeking to forge agreements on divisive US-South Korea military exercises and a planned reunion late this month for families divided by the Korean War.

The discussions were held in the village of Panmunjom on the border and had no fixed agenda, but aimed to cover a range of "major" issues.

Seoul's delegation was led by top National Security Council official Kim Kyou-Hyun, who said the South's focus was on ensuring that the February 20-25 reunion went ahead as scheduled.

The North was likely to make another push for South Korea to cancel its annual military drills with the United States, a source of friction with Pyongyang, slated to begin on February 24.

Kim said he was entering the talks with "an open attitude to explore the chance of opening a new chapter on the Korean peninsula".

He did not mention whether North Korea's nuclear programme would be discussed.

It was the first such high-level talks between the two sides since 2007. The meeting took place a day before US Secretary of State John Kerry arrives in Seoul for a brief visit focused on North Korea.

The North wants to resume talks with Seoul and Washington on nuclear matters, but both have insisted that Pyongyang must first make a tangible commitment to abandoning nuclear weapons.

The Panmunjom talks were requested by Pyongyang and made front-page headlines in the South. But they barely got a mention in the North's state media, with the official KCNA news agency releasing only a one-line dispatch on Wednesday.

The morning session lasted 90 minutes, with the two sides reconvening after lunch on the South side of the border village, where the armistice ending the 1950-1953 Korean conflict was signed 60 years ago.

North looks to diplomacy

Kim Yong-Hyun, a North Korea expert at Dongguk University in Seoul, said Pyongyang was keen to make a public display of its diplomatic credentials.

"It wants to demonstrate a willingness to improve ties with the South in order to obtain concessions from Seoul and others," said Kim, who also warned it was premature to expect any major breakthroughs.

The North is also likely to push for a resumption of regular South Korea tours to its Mount Kumgang resort. The South suspended the tours after a tourist was shot and killed by North Korean soldiers in 2008, and Pyongyang is keen to see the return of what was once a lucrative source of hard currency.

The success of the upcoming family reunion event would be key to Seoul considering starting up the tours again.

"If the first step goes well, it can move to the next level, expanding the scope of inter-Korean cooperation at a faster speed," the South's Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-Jae said on Tuesday.

But there are fears the North might cancel the reunion to protest against South Korea and the United States pushing ahead with their joint military exercises. Pyongyang views the drills as rehearsals for an invasion and has repeatedly demanded Seoul call them off, warning at one point of an "unimaginable holocaust" if they went ahead.

Last year's exercises fuelled an unusually sharp and protracted surge in military tensions, with Pyongyang threatening a pre-emptive nuclear strike and nuclear-capable US stealth bombers making dummy runs over the Korean peninsula.

Seoul and Washington have made it clear there is no question of this year's drills being cancelled, but US officials have indicated they will be toned down, with no aircraft carrier and no strategic bombers used.

Because the Korean War ended with a ceasefire rather than a peace treaty, North and South Korea technically remain at war.

President Park Geun-Hye, who came to office a year ago, had promised greater engagement with Pyongyang and held out the possibility of a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un.

Substantive dialogue between the two sides mostly dried up under Park's presidential predecessor, Lee Myung-Bak, who took a tough line with Pyongyang.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

 

Date created : 2014-02-12

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