SEOUL • Top aides to the leaders of North and South Korea have met at the Panmunjom truce village straddling their border, raising hopes for an end to a standoff that put the rivals on the brink of armed conflict.
The meeting yesterday at the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) village, known for its sky-blue huts and grim-faced soldiers, was set for half an hour after North Korea's previously set ultimatum demanding that the South halt its loudspeaker propaganda broadcasts along the border or face military action.
That deadline passed without any reported incidents.
Tension on the Korean peninsula has been running high since an exchange of artillery fire last Thursday, prompting calls for calm from the United Nations, the United States and the North's lone major ally, China.
South Korea's military remained on high alert despite the announced talks, a defence official said.
South Korean President Park Geun Hye's national security adviser and her unification minister met Mr Hwang Pyong So, the top military aide to the North's leader, Mr Kim Jong Un, and a senior official who handles inter-Korean affairs.
"The South and the North agreed to hold contact related to the ongoing situation in South-North relations," Mr Kim Kyou Hyun, the presidential Blue House's deputy national security adviser, said in a televised briefing.
Pyongyang made an initial proposal last Friday for a meeting, and Seoul made a revised proposal yesterday seeking Mr Hwang's attendance, Mr Kim said.
The North's KCNA news agency also announced the meeting, referring to the South as the Republic of Korea, a rare formal recognition of its rival state, in sharp contrast to the bellicose rhetoric in recent days.
"They need to come up with some sort of an agreement where both sides have saved face. That would be the trick," said Dr James Kim, a research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.
"North Korea will probably demand that the broadcasts be cut, and they may even come to an impasse on that issue."
North Korea, technically still at war with the South after their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, had declared a "quasi-state of war" in front-line areas and set the deadline for Seoul to halt the broadcasts from loudspeakers placed along the border.
Seoul had said it would continue the broadcasts unless the North accepted responsibility for landmine explosions this month in the DMZ that wounded two South Korean soldiers. Pyongyang denies that it planted the mines.
South Korea began blasting anti-North propaganda over the DMZ on Aug 10, resuming a tactic both sides had stopped in 2004, days after the landmine incident.
North Korea resumed its own broadcasts last Monday.
South Korean Vice-Defence Minister Baek Seung Joo said his government expected North Korea to fire at some of the 11 sites where Seoul has set up loudspeakers.
The United States, which has 28,500 military personnel based in South Korea, said last Friday it had resumed its annual joint military exercises there after a temporary halt to coordinate with Seoul over the shelling from North Korea.
The drills, code-named Ulchi Freedom Guardian, began last Monday and will run until next Friday. North Korea regularly condemns the manoeuvres as a preparation for war.
Four South Korean and four US fighter jets flew in a joint sortie over the South yesterday, an official at the South's office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said by telephone, as thousands of South Korean villagers living near the border were evacuated to shelters.