South Korea yesterday said the North had agreed to hold working-level talks in the border truce village of Panmunjom this weekend following months of soaring tensions — the first such dialogue in more than two years.
The two Koreas agreed to send three delegates each to Panmunjom, a traditional point of contact on their border, for talks today aimed at paving the way for higher-level negotiations, Seoul’s Unification Ministry said.
Pyongyang conveyed its decision to the South through a hotline between the two sides that was reopened on Friday, the ministry said.
The hotline was severed in March as military tensions soared on the Korean Peninsula.
The two nations unexpectedly reached a snap agreement on Thursday on opening a dialogue, with South Korea responding to a North initiative by offering a ministerial-level meeting in Seoul on Wednesday.
A spokesman for Pyongyang’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea then suggested initial lower-level talks tomorrow in the Kaesong joint industrial zone.
The South’s Unification Ministry — using the newly reopened hotline — agreed, but said Panmunjom would be a more appropriate venue.
The proposed agenda for the North-South talks involves the re-opening of Kaesong, the resumption of tours to the North’s Mount Kumgang resort and renewed cross-border family reunions.
The Kaesong complex, established in 2004 as a symbol of inter-Korean cooperation, was the most high-profile casualty of the recent tensions.
Operations ground to a halt after the North pulled all its 53,000 workers out in early April. The South withdrew its managers and officials soon afterward.
As the two Koreas gingerly explored ways to resume dialogue, both sides stopped short of saying whether the thorniest issue — the North’s nuclear program — would be on the ministerial talks’ agenda.
However, the South is widely expected to touch on the issue when the ministerial talks occur.
The North’s decision to hold talks in Panmunjom came just after a US-China summit began in California, at which the North’s nuclear program will be high on the agenda.
Analysts said North Korea’s surprise shift signaled a desire to initiate a wider dialogue in the future involving the US.
“The North wants to create an atmosphere conducive to resuming dialogue with the United States,” professor Yoo Ho-yeol of Korea University said.
Professor Yang Moo-jin of the University of North Korean Studies said the North was seeking to prevent the US, China and South Korea from agreeing to put concerted pressure on Pyongyang through ongoing and planned summits.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye plans to visit Beijing for a summit late this month.
However, US Department of State spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki made it clear that North Korea would have to show some commitment toward abandoning its nuclear weapons program before the US got involved.
Pyongyang has repeatedly insisted that its nuclear deterrent is not up for negotiation.
The last working-level talks between North and South Korea were held in February 2011, and there have been no inter-Korean talks at the ministerial level since 2007.
The North’s nuclear test in February resulted in tightened UN sanctions and triggered the cycle of escalating tensions that saw Pyongyang threaten pre-emptive nuclear strikes against the US and South Korea.
China, the North’s sole major ally and economic benefactor, has been under pressure from the US to restrain its neighbor, and both Washington and Beijing welcomed the tentative talks agreement.