SEOUL: North and South Korea stepped back from the brink Tuesday, with an agreement that ended a dangerous military standoff but left a host of perennial tension-raising irritants unresolved.
Under the terms outlined in a joint communiqué, the South undertook to switch off loudspeakers blasting propaganda messages across the border, after the North expressed “regret” at the maiming of two South Korean soldiers in mine blasts earlier this month.
The speakers were silenced at midday (0300 GMT) Tuesday, at which time the North had also agreed to lift a “semi-war state” declared last week by leader Kim Jong-Un.
The agreement came after days and nights of grueling negotiations that had begun early Saturday evening in the border truce village of Panmunjom.
The talks had played out against a background of rising military tensions, with South Korean and US fighter jets flying simulated bombing sorties and North Korea reportedly deploying dozens of submarines and doubling artillery units at the border.
The final wording of the communiqué fell short of the complete apology South Korea had sought for the mine blasts, and there was no explicit acceptance of responsibility by Pyongyang, which has repeatedly denied any role in the incident.
But South Korea’s lead negotiator, National Security Adviser Kim Kwan-Jin, insisted the expression of North Korean regret was “very meaningful” and said securing it had been the toughest part of the negotiating process.
“We had to get a word of apology that has the North as the main agent,” Kim said.
The two sides also agreed to work towards resumption next month of reunions for families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War, and to hold official talks in either Seoul or Pyongyang at a date to be decided.
President Park Geun-Hye hailed what she described as a “fruitful” agreement that she hoped would provide a “turnaround” in sorting out other pending issues.
Analyst reaction was mixed, with some suggesting the South had come away with too little in terms of a clear apology.
Seoul had also sought a specific promise from Pyongyang to refrain from future provocations, but had to settle for a vague reference to avoiding “abnormal” events.
But Jeung Young-Tae, an analyst at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul, argued that the expression of regret had been stronger than many expected.
“Past inter-Korea agreements at a time like this have tended to be extremely ambiguous,” Jeung said.
“But in the world of diplomatic language, this is a clear apology, with the object of the regret — the landmine blasts that maimed the soldiers — clearly stated,” he added.
‘Very tense several days’
The United States, which has close to 30,000 troops permanently stationed in South Korea, welcomed the decision to end the military standoff.
“It was a very tense several days,” US State Department spokesman John Kirby told a regular briefing.
“We welcome this agreement, but now it’s up to the North to act and not simply make assurances with respect to their own military activities there along the border,” Kirby said.
Previous agreements that appeared to offer a new way forward for inter-Korean relations have generally stumbled straight out of the gate.
In October last year the two sides agreed to a resumption of high-level talks, but the dialogue never materialized due to a row over South Korean activists floating anti-Pyongyang leaflets over the border by balloon.
The leafleting is sure to continue, as will the annual South Korea-US joint military exercises, which the North has always denounced and repeatedly cited as a motive for raising tensions.
“If the two sides fail to put aside ideological differences and approach these issues in a practical way, this agreement might go the same way as so many others,” said Cheong Seong-Chang of the Sejong Institute think-tank in Seoul.
Technically, the two Koreas have been at war for the past 65 years since the 1950-53 Korean War ended with a ceasefire that was never ratified by a formal peace treaty.