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Two Koreas in high-level talks ahead of summit


Seoul (AFP)

Senior officials of the two Koreas met Thursday to prepare for a rare inter-Korean summit, days after the nuclear-armed North's leader Kim Jong Un made his international debut with a surprise trip to China.

Kim is due to meet South Korean President Moon Jae-in late April at the truce village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone, followed by landmark talks with US President Donald Trump which could come as early as May.

At the Unification Pavilion on Panmunjom's northern side, the leader of Pyongyang's delegation Ri Son Gwon said Thursday's talks were aimed at paving the way for a meeting between the leaders of North and South -- the first direct public reference to a summit by any Northern official or media outlet.

"Over the past 80 days or so, many events that were unprecedented in inter-Korean relations took place," noted Ri, who is chairman of the North's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country.

The head of Seoul's three-member delegation, unification minister Cho Myoung-gyon, told journalists earlier that setting a date for the summit, the third of its kind after meetings in 2000 and 2007, would be a key agenda item.

"We will have good discussions with the North to successfully hold the inter-Korea summit in April," Cho said.

The rapid rapprochement on the peninsula was kicked off by the Winter Olympics in the South and comes after a year of heightened tensions over the North's nuclear and missile programmes, which saw Kim and Trump engage in a fiery war of words.

Events have moved quickly since then, with a flurry of official visits between the two Koreas and an advance team of Southern performers heading north on Thursday ahead of K-pop concerts in Pyongyang.

- Kim-Xi meeting -

Also Thursday, China's top diplomat, State Councillor Yang Jiechi, was due in Seoul to brief Moon on Kim's secretive visit to Beijing this week to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping for the first time.

It was the North Korean leader's first overseas trip since inheriting power after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, in 2011.

China has long been the North's key diplomatic defender and provider of trade and aid, but relations have been strained by Pyongyang's weapons programmes, with Beijing showing a new willingness to implement UN sanctions against it.

Even so the two leaders hailed their nations' historic ties, with Xi accepting Kim's invitation to visit Pyongyang, according to the North's official Korean Central News Agency.

"There is no question that my first foreign visit would be to the Chinese capital," it quoted Kim as saying, calling it a "noble obligation".

Kim pledged that he was "committed to denuclearisation" on the Korean peninsula, according to China's Xinhua news agency -- but added this would depend on South Korea and the US taking what he called "progressive and synchronous measures for the realisation of peace".

Analysts say both sides had reason to hold the meeting -- Pyongyang to secure Beijing's backing and support, and China to protect its interests in what it considers its backyard.

Robert Kelly, a professor at Pusan National University in South Korea, said: "Xi would not grant this meeting unless the Chinese were genuinely concerned about the summits to come and wanted some kind of role to play."

The South's JoongAng Daily newspaper said in an editorial Thursday that the meeting "makes the situation more complicated because Xi stepped into the negotiation all of a sudden".

"China will not simply look on," it added.

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