North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has emerged from a two-week public absence to meet an envoy from the South, in what might signal a positive change in the regime's stance over stalled nuclear talks with the United States.
Mr Kim received a personal letter from South Korean President Moon Jae-in, delivered yesterday by a delegation led by envoy Chung Eui-yong.
Details of the meeting will be revealed only today, said South Korea's presidential Blue House.
Some observers are hopeful that the meeting, which was widely speculated about but confirmed only after the delegation landed in Pyongyang, could help resolve the present impasse.
While the visit was aimed largely at discussing the third Moon-Kim summit slated for later this month, Dr Shin Beom-chul, senior fellow at The Asan Institute for Policy Studies, said the most important issue now is breaking the nuclear stalemate. "The deadlock between North Korea and the US affects inter-Korea relations too... South Korea is the catalyst to advance the dialogue," he told The Straits Times.
Negotiations have hit a bump since US President Donald Trump abruptly cancelled a visit to Pyongyang by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo two weeks ago, citing a lack of progress in North Korea's denuclearisation process.
CATALYST FOR DIALOGUE
The deadlock between North Korea and the US affects inter-Korea relations too... South Korea is the catalyst to advance the dialogue.
DR SHIN BEOM-CHUL, senior fellow at The Asan Institute for Policy Studies, saying the most important issue now is breaking the nuclear stalemate.
Hopes are pinned on Mr Moon to mediate a breakthrough as both the US and North Korea have refused to give in to each other's demands.
Pyongyang is pushing for a phased approach to denuclearisation with early rewards, including a declaration to the end of the 1950-1953 Korean War, while Washington insists on seeing concrete action first.
Mr Chung, head of the presidential National Security Office, told reporters on Tuesday that the delegation will try to set a date for the next Moon-Kim summit while discussing ways to deepen inter-Korea ties according to the agreement made between their leaders when they first met in April.
"Our government views an end-of-war declaration as a critical step towards establishing peace on the Korean peninsula through denuclearisation," he said.
Mr Chung, who had earlier led the same delegation to Pyongyang in March, also said he would convey the US' stance on the nuclear issue to Pyongyang.
He is expected to urge North Korea to promise to commit to specific steps towards denuclearisation, including a timetable, according to local reports. The delegation returned to Seoul last night.
Analysts said recent developments, including hints that the US could consider resuming military exercises with the South and the decision by Chinese President Xi Jinping not to attend 70th anniversary celebrations of North Korea's founding on Sunday, could have coaxed the regime to rethink its stance.
Dr Shin said Mr Xi's decision signals that China, under pressure from the US due to a growing trade war, would step away from the North Korea issue.
"China giving way to US pressure could be a lesson for Mr Kim," said Dr Shin.
"North Korea would face serious trouble if the US really changes its mind and increases pressure on North Korea. Mr Kim would want to avoid that situation and regard the South Korean envoy as an opportunity for him to send a positive message on the nuclear issue."