North and South Korea held their first high-level talks in seven years on their fortified border yesterday, exploring ways to improve ties while the South and the United States geared up for military exercises that have angered the North.
The meeting was set up with unusual speed and great secrecy at the North’s suggestion last week.
It was the latest example of conflicting signals coming from North Korea that included an abrupt cancellation of an invitation for a US envoy to visit.
The two sides met at the Panmunjom truce village on the border with no pre-arranged agenda and discussed a range of issues including reunions of families separated during the 1950-53 Korean War, a South Korean official said.
The North has demanded that the South and the United States scrap the military exercises, due to start later this month, but both sides have plenty of incentives to seek a deal that could break their long stalemate.
Cheong Seong-chang, an expert at the Sejong Institute outside Seoul, said: “For the North, if it comes back with an accomplishment in terms of improved South-North ties, it will mean a better atmosphere for [North Korea’s leader] Kim Jong-un to visit China and a justification to pursue high-level talks with the United States.”
Mr Kim is believed to be seeking a visit to China, the North’s greatest ally and main benefactor, to reinforce his legitimacy as leader.
Mr Kim, who is in his early thirties, took power when his father died suddenly in 2011.
The South Korean delegation was led by president Park Geun-hye’s deputy national security adviser. North Korea has sent the second-highest ranking official in the ruling Workers’ Party department charged with ties with the South. The meeting comes a week before the two sides are scheduled to hold reunions of family members separated since the Korean War at the Mount Kumgang resort just inside the North, which is considered a major humanitarian event by the South.
The North has threatened to cancel the reunions over a sortie last week by a nuclear-capable US B-52 bomber near the Korean peninsula.
It has also called the annual military exercises between South Korean and US forces a rehearsal for war despite assertions by Seoul and Washington that the drills are routine.
North Korea has cancelled an invitation for US human rights envoy Robert King to visit Pyongyang to discuss the release of imprisoned US missionary Kenneth Bae, which had been expected to take place as early as this week.
South Korea halted all trade and most investment with the North in May 2010 after the sinking of one of its warships, which it blamed on Pyongyang.
A joint factory project in the North’s border city of Kaesong, which generates about $90 million (£54.2m) annually in wages for the impoverished state, is the last remaining symbol of economic co-operation between the two Koreas.