Two Koreas seek to ease tensions at high-level talks

South and North Korean representatives to inter-Korean talks shake hands at the start of their meeting.
South and North Korean representatives to inter-Korean talks shake hands at the start of their meeting.PHOTO: EPA

SEOUL (AFP) - North and South Korea sat down to rare, high-level talks Friday (Dec 11), aimed at building on an August agreement to ease cross-border tensions after a flare-up brought them to the brink of an armed conflict.

Although any dialogue between the two Koreas is welcomed as a positive step, past experience suggests the talks - being held at the vice-minister level - are unlikely to produce a significant breakthrough.

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.

The last such sit-down, with the mandate to discuss a range of inter-Korean issues, took place nearly two years ago.

"Let's take a crucial first step to pave the way for reunification. I hope various pending issues will be solved one by one," South Korea's chief delegate Hwang Boo Gi told his North Korean counterpart Jon Jong Su as they shook hands.

The talks were held on the North Korean side of the border in the jointly-run Kaesong industrial zone - which opened in 2004 and has survived as a rare symbol of inter-Korean cooperation.

Jon said the talks were an opportunity to overcome the decades of mistrust and confrontation.

"Let's make efforts to break down the barrier, fill up the cracks and make a new and wide road together," he said.

Analysts say a positive result would see the two sides simply agreeing to continue the dialogue and offering some encouraging noises about future cooperation.

"The outcome this time could have a significant impact on the path the overall inter-Korea relationship takes next year," said Cheong Seong Chang, an analyst at the Sejong Institute think tank in Seoul.

The elephant in the room for any North-South dialogue is Pyongyang's nuclear weapons programme. But while Seoul may well raise the issue of denuclearisation, experts said the two sides were likely to focus on more achievable targets.

"The North's denuclearisation needs to be seen as the ultimate goal of inter-Korea dialogue, not a pre-condition of it," said Kim Keun Shik, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.

The talks came a day after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said the country had developed a hydrogen bomb - a claim greeted with scepticism by US and South Korean intelligence officials.

There was no set agenda in Kaesong, but both sides have clear, if not necessarily complementary priorities.

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.

For South Korean President Park Geun Hye, who came to power with pledges of closer engagement with Pyongyang, a deal on the reunions would represent a welcome feather in her cap.

Park has repeatedly talked up the prospect of eventual Korean re-unification, but has offered little in policy terms to ease tensions with the perennially belligerent North.

With only two years left until the end of her term, Cheong said Park was "running out of time" to try to build a legacy when it comes to inter-Korean relations.

The talks began just hours after North Korea came under stinging criticism for the second consecutive year at the UN Security Council over its human rights record.

The meeting was chaired by the United States, whose ambassador Samantha Power said Pyongyang's rights abuses represented "a level of horror unrivalled in the world".