Inter-Korea talks: In sub-zero temperature, North Korea jokes about 'frozen' relations

Pyongyang's chief delegate Ri Son Gwon (pictured) speaking to South Korea's Unification Minister Cho Myung Gyun during their meeting at the border truce village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarised Zone on Jan 9, 2018.
Pyongyang's chief delegate Ri Son Gwon (pictured) speaking to South Korea's Unification Minister Cho Myung Gyun during their meeting at the border truce village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarised Zone on Jan 9, 2018.PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (BLOOMBERG) - With the temperature under zero degrees for the first meeting between officials from both Koreas in more than two years, Pyongyang's chief negotiator tried to break the ice with a joke.

"It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that inter-Korean relations have been frozen more than the natural weather," Mr Ri Son Gwon said in his opening remarks.

Officials from both sides were wearing Western-style suits, with the North Koreans donning red badges with pictures of former leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.

The South Korean delegation, sporting the national flag and Pyeongchang Olympics on their badges, appeared to have more files in their bags than their counterparts.

The mineral water for the meeting was "Pyeongchang Water" - named after the South Korean town where the Olympics will be held next month - with red ginseng tea also available to perk up negotiators should the talks drag on. Catering was by Lotte Group, one of South Korea's biggest conglomerates.

North Korea's top negotiator urged his South Korean counterpart to consider allowing a live broadcast of the talks that started on Tuesday.

"There are high expectations, so we wish to open this meeting to the public so that it can be broadcast live to all Koreans," Mr Ri, chairman of North Korea's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland, told his South Korean counterpart in his opening remarks at the first high-level meeting between the countries in more than two years.

South Korean Unification Minister Cho Myoung Gyon responded by saying the talks should be held behind closed doors but could be opened to the media later if needed.

The discussions were held at Panmunjom, a village in the Joint Security Area along the heavily fortified border that divides the Korean Peninsula.

They could lead to broader discussions on Kim Jong Un's nuclear program, but the immediate focus is on securing North Korea's participation at the Winter Games starting on Feb 9 in Pyeongchang, a South Korean ski town.

"The expectations game will be important: the South will want to make concrete progress on the logistical issues, and preserve momentum for inter-Korean dialogue going forward," said Mason Richey, an associate professor at the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul.

"The North will want to make progress on Olympics participation, but will also probe for opportunities to drive the thin end of the wedge into" US-South Korea relations, he said.

The talks follow North Korean leader Kim's call for dialogue in a New Year's Day address in which he claimed the ability to strike anywhere in the US with a nuclear weapon. American and Japanese officials have sought reassurances from South Korea that the discussions wouldn't undermine United Nations sanctions aimed at pressuring Kim to abandon his nuclear program.

Both South Korean President Moon Jae in and Kim will be able to listen in on the discussions, and intervene if needed, according to a South Korean government official, who asked not to be identified.

In addition to the Olympics, South Korea plans to talk about opening a dialogue with the North Korean military and reuniting separated families, Unification Ministry spokesman Baik Tae Hyun told reporters in Seoul on Monday.

US President Donald Trump on Saturday called the talks "a big start," saying they were evidence that sanctions targeting North Korea were working. At Moon's request, Trump delayed annual joint US-South Korean military exercises until after the Paralympic Games end March 18.

The two nations will conduct the military drills from April 1 until the end of May, Dong-A Ilbo newspaper reported on Tuesday, citing South Korean government officials it didn't identify.