North, South Korea trade counterproposals on talks

HOTLINE REOPENED::Unification Ministry officials in Seoul said the proposal had been made through a Red Cross communications line the North had reopened

AP, SEOUL

Sat, Jun 08, 2013 - Page 1

The rival Koreas yesterday traded counterproposals over where to meet for talks tomorrow, as mutual interest in mending abysmal ties clashed with mistrust stemming from years of animosity and hard-line stances.

South Korea’s suggestion that officials meet in a truce village straddling the border between the countries came hours after Pyongyang said it favors holding talks in its border city of Kaesong.

The South on Thursday had suggested high-level talks on Wednesday next week in Seoul, but the North said yesterday that it wanted lower-level talks first because the countries’ “relations have been stalemated for years and mistrust has reached the extremity.”

Two officials with Seoul’s Unification Ministry said South Korea made the latest proposal through a cross-border Red Cross communications line newly reopened by the North.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity, citing office policy.

Pyongyang did not immediately respond to Seoul’s most recent offer, but even the restoration of the Red Cross line in the truce village of Panmunjom signals an easing of tensions. The line, used for exchanging messages on humanitarian and other issues, was shut down by the North in March during a weeks-long period of animosity marked by North Korean threats of war and South Korean vows of counterstrikes.

Yesterday’s developments followed the countries’ agreement a day earlier to hold talks on issues, including reopening a jointly run industrial complex in Kaesong that had been the last symbol of inter-Korean cooperation before it closed this spring.

The news was welcomed on both sides of the world’s most heavily fortified border.

Kwak Sok-gyong, a Pyongyang resident, said the North’s announcement “reflects what people want in both north and south. I think the relations between north and south should be improved as soon as possible.”

North Koreans interviewed by foreign media in Pyongyang often echo statements carried by the country’s state media.

In Seoul, Park Gyeong-hyun, a 17-year-old student, said the Koreas have many unresolved problems, such as families separated by the Korean War six decades ago.

“So I view the talks as a positive thing because the relationship between the two Koreas will get better if the talks go well,” Park said.

Officials in Seoul said it was not yet clear what tomorrow’s proposed talks will focus on, if they happen. Such meetings in the past have involved lower-level officials charged with ironing out administrative details and reporting back to their bosses. The next step would be higher-level talks. The last government-level contact between the Koreas on their peninsula took place in February 2011 at Panmunjom, according to the Unification Ministry.

The mood on the Korean Peninsula has been tense since North Korean leader Kim Jong-il died in December 2011 and his son Kim Jong-un took over.

The proposed talks could represent a change in the North’s approach, analysts said, or could simply be an effort to ease international demands that it end its development of nuclear weapons, a topic crucial to Washington but not a part of envisioned inter-Korean meetings.