SEOUL: North and South Korea held a second day of high-level talks Saturday, aimed at easing cross-border tensions just months after a flare-up pushed them to the brink of an armed conflict.
The vice-minister-level talks, with a mandate to address a broad but unspecified range of inter-Korean issues, are the first of their type for nearly two years.
While no substantial breakthrough is expected, there is room for tangible progress with both sides seeking the resumption of stalled cooperation projects that have significant symbolic and financial value.
The talks, held on the North Korean side of the border in the jointly-run Kaesong industrial zone, were a key element of an accord reached in August to end a dangerous military standoff.
At the height of that crisis, fuelled by high-decibel bellicose rhetoric, both Koreas went on a virtual war footing after a brief artillery exchange across their land border.
The Kaesong talks began Friday and ran over three sessions between South Korea’s chief delegate Hwang Boo-Gi and his North Korean counterpart Jon Jong-Su.
“The two sides had a broad discussion of pending issues and exchanged views in a sincere manner,” the Unification Ministry in Seoul said.
They met again for 40 minutes on Saturday morning, before adjourning to consult with their respective capitals.
“I think it will take time,” Hwang said when asked how long the talks would continue for.
Previous efforts to establish a regular dialogue have tended to falter after an initial meeting — reflecting decades of animosity and mistrust between two countries that have remained technically at war since the end of the 1950-53 Korean conflict.
A ‘crucial step’
As they shook hands on Friday, Hwang said it was time to “take a crucial step,” while Jon underlined the opportunity to move towards a less confrontational relationship.
There was no set agenda for the discussions, but they were expected to focus on reviving two cross-border programs.
The cash-strapped North wants the South to resume lucrative tours to its scenic Mount Kumgang resort, which Seoul suspended in 2008 after a female tourist was shot dead by a North Korean guard.
Restarting the tours would be a useful propaganda victory for Kim Jong-Un, as well as providing a source of much-needed hard revenue.
South Korea, meanwhile, wants the North to agree to regular reunions for families separated by the Korean War.
Currently the reunions are being held less than once a year and with only a very limited number of participants — despite a huge waiting list of largely elderly South Koreans desperate to see their relatives in the North before they die.
The elephant in the room for any North-South dialogue is Pyong-yang’s nuclear weapons program. But while Seoul was expected to raise the issue of denuclearisation, experts said the two sides were focused on more achievable targets.
The talks came a day after North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un said the country had developed a hydrogen bomb — a claim treated with skepticism by US and South Korean intelligence officials.
They also come amid diplomatic shifts in northeast Asia that have left North Korea looking more isolated than ever, with Seoul moving closer to Pyongyang’s main diplomatic and economic ally China, and improving previously strained relations with Tokyo.