North Korea, South Korea kick off 2nd day of high-level talks

South Korean Vice-Unification Minister Hwang Boo Gi (left) shaking hands with his North Korean counterpart Jon Jong Su during their meeting at the Kaesong Industrial Complex in Kaesong, North Korea, on Dec 11, 2015.
South Korean Vice-Unification Minister Hwang Boo Gi (left) shaking hands with his North Korean counterpart Jon Jong Su during their meeting at the Kaesong Industrial Complex in Kaesong, North Korea, on Dec 11, 2015.PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL (AFP) - North and South Korea kicked off a second day of high-level talks on Saturday (Dec 12), 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 one 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 war footing after a brief artillery exchange across their land border.

The Kaesong talks began on Friday (Dec 11) 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.

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 1950-1953 Korean conflict.

As they shook hands on Friday, Mr Hwang said it was time to "take a crucial step", while Mr 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 programmes.

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 Pyongyang's nuclear weapons programme. 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 scepticism by US and South Korean intelligence officials.

They are come amid diplomatic shifts in the north-east Asia region 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.