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Rival Koreas hold first talks in two years

The talks were to set up a high-level meeting in Seoul after months of tensions.

Chun Hae-sung, center, the head of South Korea's working-level delegation, speaks to the media while standing with delegates Kwon Young-yang, left, and Kang Jong-won before leaving for Panmunjom at the Office of the South Korea-North Korea Dialogue
Chun Hae-sung, center, the head of South Korea's working-level delegation, speaks to the media while standing with delegates Kwon Young-yang, left, and Kang Jong-won before leaving for Panmunjom at the Office of the South Korea-North Korea Dialogue
Image: Lee Jin-man/AP/Press Association Images

NORTH AND SOUTH Korea held their first official talks for more than two years Sunday, seeking to set up a high-level meeting in Seoul after months of tensions and threats of nuclear war.

The working-level discussions – weighed down, as always, by decades of mutual distrust – were held in the border truce village of Panmunjom where the armistice ending the 1950-53 Koran War was signed.

“The overall atmosphere was… calm and the discussion proceeded with no major debate,” the South’s Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Hyung-Seok said after the morning session between the two, three-person delegations.

In the afternoon, the two heads of delegation held further rounds of discussions.

Meeting

The talks were aimed at agreeing a framework for what would be the rivals’ first ministerial-level meeting since 2007 – tentatively scheduled to be held in Seoul on Wednesday.

The agenda there will focus on restoring suspended commercial links, including the Kaesong joint industrial complex that the North effectively shut down in April as tensions between the historic rivals peaked.

“Today’s talks were purely preparatory, so there was little room for dispute,” said Yang Moo-Jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.

We’ll get a better sense of where things really stand on Wednesday.

The talks came about after an unexpected reversal on Thursday from North Korea, which suddenly dropped its default tone of high-decibel belligerence and proposed opening a dialogue.

South Korea responded swiftly with its offer of a ministerial meeting in Seoul, the North countered with a request for lower-level talks first and – after some relatively benign to-and-fro about the best venue – Sunday’s meet in Panmunjom was agreed.

In a further signal of intent, North Korea on Friday restored its official hotline with the South, which it had severed in March.

Welcomed

The move towards dialogue has been broadly welcomed – given the threats of nuclear war that were being flung around in April and May – but there is sizeable scepticism about Pyongyang’s intentions.

It was the North’s decision to withdraw its 53,000 workers in early April that closed Kaesong.

The North also wants to discuss resuming tours by South Koreans to its Mount Kumgang resort. These were suspended after a North Korean soldier shot dead a South Korean tourist there in July 2008.

Kaesong and Mount Kumgang were both significant sources of scarce foreign currency for North Korea, which is squeezed by UN sanctions imposed over its nuclear weapons programme.

President Barack Obama, left, and Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, meet with their respective delegations at the Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands on Saturday. Pic: AP Photo/Evan Vucci

There are also suggestions that Pyongyang was playing to a specific audience by proposing talks just before US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping sat down for their crucial summit in California.

China, the North’s sole major ally and economic benefactor, has been under US pressure to restrain its neighbour and has pushed Pyongyang to drop its destabilising strategy of confrontation.

On Saturday, Obama and Xi closely consulted on North Korea’s recent nuclear brinkmanship, and agreed to work together on the “denuclearisation” of the Korean peninsula, US National Security Advisor Tom Donilon said.

President Park Geun-Hye, who took office in February with a promise of greater engagement with Pyongyang, has welcomed the initiative.

But she remains adamant that any substantive dialogue can only take place if the North shows some tangible commitment to abandoning its nuclear weapons programme.

North Korea has been equally emphatic in declaring its nuclear deterrent is not up for negotiation.

- © AFP, 2012

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