Jun 10, 2013

    Two Koreas calm at talks

    NORTH and South Korea held their first official talks in more than two years yesterday, confronting decades of mutual distrust in a search for some positive end to months of soaring military tensions.

    The working-level discussions, which lasted less than two hours over a morning and an afternoon session in the border truce village of Panmunjom, were to set up ministerial-level talks tentatively scheduled for Wednesday in Seoul.

    The agenda there will focus on restoring suspended commercial links, including the Kaesong joint industrial complex that the North effectively shut down in April as tensions between the historic rivals peaked.

    "The overall atmosphere was... calm and the discussions proceeded with no major debates," the South's Unification Ministry spokesman, Mr Kim Hyung Seok, told reporters after the morning session.

    The agenda, venue, date, duration of the ministerial meeting and the number of delegates were all discussed, he said.

    The talks came about after an unexpected reversal last Thursday from North Korea, which suddenly dropped its default tone of high-decibel belligerence and proposed opening a dialogue.

    South Korea responded swiftly with its offer of a ministerial meeting in Seoul, the North countered with a request for lower-level talks first, and yesterday's meet in Panmunjom was agreed.

    In a further signal of intent, North Korea last Friday restored its official hotline with the South, which it had severed in March.

    The two Koreas last held working talks in February 2011, and they have not met at the ministerial level since 2007.

    The move towards dialogue has been broadly welcomed - given the threats of nuclear war that were being flung around in April and last month - but there is sizeable scepticism about Pyongyang's intentions.

    "The North Korean offer has all of the hallmarks of Pyongyang's diplomacy," said Mr 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," he said.

    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 both significant sources of scarce foreign currency for North Korea, which is squeezed by United Nations sanctions imposed over its nuclear weapons programme.

    There are also suggestions that Pyongyang was playing to a specific audience by proposing talks just before United States President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping sat down for their crucial summit in California.

    China, the North's sole major ally and economic benefactor, has been under US pressure to restrain its neighbour.