North and South Korea agreed yesterday to hold senior-level talks this week in Seoul, a breakthrough of sorts to ease tensions after Pyongyang’s recent threats of nuclear war and Seoul’s vows of counterstrikes.
The two-day meeting starting tomorrow will focus on stalled cooperation projects, including the resumption of operations at a jointly run factory park near the border in North Korea that was the last remaining symbol of inter-Korean rapprochement until Pyongyang pulled out its workers in April during heightened tensions that followed its February nuclear test.
The details of the upcoming talks were ironed out in a nearly 17-hour negotiating session by lower-level officials. Those discussions began on Sunday in the countries’ first government-level meeting on the Korean Peninsula in more than two years and took place at the village of Panmunjom on their heavily armed border.
The agreement to hold the talks was announced in a statement early yesterday by the South Korean Ministry of Unification, which is responsible for North Korea matters. North Korea’s official news agency, KCNA, also reported the agreement.
It is still unclear who will represent each side in what will likely be the highest-level talks between the Koreas in years. However, dialogue at any level marks an improvement in the countries’ abysmal ties. The last several years have seen North Korean nuclear tests, long-range rocket launches and attacks blamed on the North that killed 50 South Koreans in 2010.
The meeting that starts tomorrow will also include discussions on resuming South Korean tours to a North Korean mountain resort, the reunion of separated families and other humanitarian issues, officials said. However, the issue most crucial to Washington — a push to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons — is not on the official agenda.
While there was broad agreement, sticking points arose over the delegation heads and the agenda, the ministry said. Seoul said it would send a senior-level official responsible for North Korea-related issues, while Pyongyang said it would send a senior-level government official, without elaborating.
North Korea said that in addition to the rapprochement projects, the two sides would also discuss how to jointly commemorate past inter-Korean statements, including one settled during a landmark 2000 summit between the countries’ leaders, civilian exchanges and other joint collaboration matters.
South Korean Minister of Unification Ryoo Kihl-jae proposed a minister-level meeting with the North last week, but South Korean Unification Policy Officer Chun Hae-sung, who led the South’s delegation at Sunday’s talks, told reporters it is not clear if Ryoo will represent South Korea. A minister-level summit between the Koreas has not happened since 2007.
Neither Korea mentioned Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons.
When asked yesterday by reporters if South Korean delegates raised the issue during Sunday’s negotiations, Chun said it was not appropriate to discuss issues that were not part of the agenda.
Analysts express wariness about North Korea’s intentions, with some seeing the interest in dialogue as part of a pattern where Pyongyang follows aggressive rhetoric and provocations with diplomatic efforts to trade an easing of tension for outside concessions.
Pyongyang is trying to improve ties with Seoul because it very much wants dialogue with the US, which could give the North aid, ease international sanctions and improve its economy in return for concessions, said Kim Yong-hyun, a professor of North Korea studies at Dongguk University in Seoul.
Nuclear matters will not be on the table, Kim said, because Pyongyang wants issues related to its pursuit of atomic weapons resolved through talks with Washington or in broader, now-stalled international disarmament negotiations.