Military officers from North and South Korea will meet today for the first cross-border talks since the North’s deadly shelling of a South Korean island in November sent tensions on the peninsula soaring.
The discussions at the border truce village of Panmunjom will focus mainly on preparations for high-level military talks at a date yet to be arranged.
However, the South sees it as a chance to test the sincerity of the North’s peace overtures after months of confrontation.
“The discussions during the meeting may help give us a cue on the North’s intentions and the overall climate for dialogue,” a defense ministry spokesman said.
Relations have been icy since the South in May accused the North of torpedoing a warship and killing 46 sailors, a charge it denies.
The bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island near the disputed Yellow Sea border, which killed two marines and two civilians, briefly sparked fears of war.
However, in an abrupt change of tack this year, Pyongyang has launched what the South’s media terms a peace offensive.
And after their respective superpower patrons, China and the US, called last month for inter-Korean dialogue, neither North nor South wants to be seen as the party refusing to talk.
While China is also pressing for the revival of six-party nuclear disarmament talks, the US says the North must first mend ties with the South.
Seoul, however, says its neighbor must take “responsible measures” over last year’s attacks and pledge no repetition if dialogue is to make any progress.
And some analysts question what there is to talk about.
“There is an ongoing debate on the utility or the futility of talks with the North, bilateral or multilateral,” said Tong Kim, an -adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.
Negative views, he wrote in yesterday’s Korea Times, are based on the “widely recognized assumption” that the North will never give up its nuclear weapons through negotiation.
Supporters of talks believe that after last year’s confrontation, “it is better to have dialogue than none, even if its goal is limited to restoring stability,” he said.
Michael Green, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in an article for Foreign Policy online magazine it would be “delusional” to expect that Pyongyang is ready for a deal on its nuclear weapons.
And Peter Beck, of the US Council on Foreign Relations, said Pyongyang is “just going through the motions” with its latest peace overtures.
“I don’t think the North Koreans are serious about negotiating with anyone at this point, but they see it as in their interests to take some of the pressure off,” Beck said.
“I think Beijing has told them to cool it for a while and they don’t want to jeopardize remaining projects with South Korea. They want to keep the Kaesong cash cow going,” Beck said, referring to a Seoul-financed industrial park in the North.
The six-party talks, grouping host China, the US, the two Koreas, Russia and Japan, have been stalled since December 2008.
Beck sees a reasonable chance of them resuming since they are the only dialogue channel for the relevant parties.
“While [six-party] expectations couldn’t be lower, talking is better than not talking,” he said.
Seoul’s Ministry of Defense said today’s military talks were expected to start at 10am and last for an hour or two, with three South Korean officials led by Colonel Moon Sang-gyun taking part.