SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North and South Korea agreed Monday 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 Wednesday 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 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, near where the armistice ending the three-year Korean War was signed 60 years ago next month. That truce has never been replaced with a peace treaty, leaving the Korean Peninsula technically at war.
The agreement to hold the talks was announced in a statement early Monday by South Korea's Unification Ministry, which is responsible for North Korea matters. North Korea's official news agency, KCNA, also reported the agreement.
It's still unclear who will represent each side in what will likely be the highest-level talks between the Koreas in years. But 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 Wednesday 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. The issue most crucial to Washington, however — a push to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons — isn't on the official agenda.
While there was broad agreement, Seoul's Unification Ministry said in a statement, sticking points arose over the delegation heads and the agenda. Seoul said it will 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 Korea's Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae proposed a minister-level meeting with the North last week. But 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 Monday by reporters if South Korean delegates raised the issue during Sunday's negotiations, Chun said it wasn't appropriate do discuss issues that weren't 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 United States, 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 won't 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.
After U.N. sanctions were strengthened following North Korea's third nuclear test in February, Pyongyang threatened nuclear war and missile strikes against Seoul and Washington, pulled its workers from the jointly run factory park at the North Korean border town of Kaesong and vowed to ramp up production of nuclear bomb fuel. Seoul withdrew its last personnel from Kaesong in May.
The summit marks a political and diplomatic victory for South Korean President Park Geun-hye, who took office in February and has maintained through the heightened tensions a policy that combines vows of strong counter-action to any North Korea provocation with efforts to build trust and re-establish dialogue.
Representatives of the rival Koreas met on the peninsula in February 2011 and their nuclear envoys met in Beijing later that year, but government officials from both sides have not met since.
Sunday's meeting follows a summit by U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping in California in which the White House said "quite a bit of alignment" was found on North Korea, including an agreement that Pyongyang has to abandon its nuclear weapons aspirations.
China provides a lifeline for a North Korea struggling with energy and other economic needs, and views stability in Pyongyang as crucial for its own economy and border security. But after Pyongyang's nuclear test in February, China tightened its cross-border trade inspections and banned its state banks from dealing with North Korea's Foreign Trade Bank.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un late last month sent to China his special envoy, who reportedly told Xi that Pyongyang was willing to return to dialogue. President Park will travel to Beijing to meet Xi later this month.
North Korea was probably motivated to hold talks with Seoul because it wants to ease a sense of crisis over its deepening isolation from the rest of the world, including ally China, said Chang Yong-seok, a senior researcher at Seoul National University's Institute for Peace and Unification Studies.
"Normally, China has been on North Korea's side, but now the United States and China have joined hands to urge North Korea to denuclearize, which is a very tough situation for North Korea," Chang said.
Pyongyang, which is estimated to have a handful of crude nuclear devices, has committed a drumbeat of acts that Washington, Seoul and others deem provocative since Kim Jong Un took over in December 2011 after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il.
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