SEOUL • South Korea is willing to discuss North Korea's demand for an end to sanctions imposed over a 2010 naval attack, and the North's military is slowly easing its battle-readiness posture, the South said, a day after the rivals struck a landmark pact that defused a stand-off between their forces.
South Korea is preparing to open a new channel of dialogue with the North after the accord on Tuesday, in which North Korea expressed regret - but did not admit responsibility - over a landmine incident that wounded South Korean soldiers, and the South agreed to stop broadcasting anti-North propaganda over border loudspeakers.
"When talks get under way, we think the May 24 issue will be raised by the North, which has an interest in it, and I think it can be handled through dialogue," South Korea's Unification Ministry spokesman Jeong Joon Hee told a briefing.
He was referring to May 24, 2010, when South Korea announced sanctions that cut off most exchanges with the North, including tourism, trade and private aid, after it accused the North of a torpedo attack on a navy ship that killed 46 sailors.
North Korea denied any role in the attack.
South Korea had demanded an apology from the North as a precondition for lifting the sanctions, but has appeared to relax its stance since late last year, amid rising domestic sentiment in favour of re-engaging the North.
In their agreement reached on Tuesday after marathon, top-level negotiations in the border truce village of Panmunjom, the two sides pledged to hold talks on a range of issues related to improving ties.
Under the agreement reached, the North also undertook to scale down from a "semi-war state" once the South ended propaganda broadcasts across the border.
The Defence Ministry in Seoul said that it had noted a number of signs of de-escalation, including the "reappearance" of a large part of the North's submarine fleet that had been deployed off-radar over the weekend.
"As the North is easing its combat readiness, we are readjusting our own defence posture," said a ministry official, who declined to be identified.
Both militaries had been on maximum alert for days amid an escalating crisis that saw South Korean and United States aircraft flying dummy bombing runs and North Korean heavy artillery units being wheeled up to the border.
The ministry official said that the North had been observed closing gun ports on heavy weapon installations guarding the two Koreas' disputed Yellow Sea border.
And North Korean security guards in Panmunjom were back to carrying handguns rather than the rifles they had shouldered since last Friday, he added.
The US welcomed the decision to de-escalate after what it called a "very tense" few days.
In a regular briefing for reporters, Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said that US surveillance had also noted a relaxation in the North's military stance.
"As this agreement has moved forward, we have seen, at least on the part of the North Koreans, some efforts to de-escalate... both on land and at sea," he said. "It doesn't mean we are back to normal, but we feel better about this situation."
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE