North and South Korea held their first official talks for more than two years yesterday, seeking to set up a high-level meeting in Seoul after months of tensions and threats.
The working-level discussions were held in the border truce village of Panmunjom where the Korean War armistice was signed.
“The overall atmosphere was ... calm and the discussion proceeded with no major debate,” South Korean Ministry of Unification spokesman Kim Hyung-seok said after the morning session between the two, three-person delegations.
The talks moved into a fourth session in the evening as the two sides sought to agree a framework for what would be their 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.
“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.
Yesterday’s 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.
The South responded swiftly with its offer of a ministerial meeting in Seoul, the North countered with a request for lower-level talks first and a meeting in Panmunjom was agreed upon.
The move toward dialogue has been broadly welcomed, but there is skepticism about Pyongyang’s intentions.
“The North Korean offer has all of the hallmarks of Pyongyang’s diplomacy,” said Stephan Haggard, a North Korea expert at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. “Pyongyang is ‘sincerely’ and ‘magnanimously’ inviting the South to fix, and pay for, problems of the North’s own creation.”
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 significant sources of foreign currency for North Korea, which is squeezed by UN sanctions imposed over its nuclear weapons program.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye, who has vowed greater engagement with Pyongyang, has welcomed the initiative. However, she is adamant that any substantive dialogue can only take place if the North shows commitment to abandoning its weapons program.