Two Koreas agree to hold military talks as ties thaw

Mr Ri Son Gwon, head of the North Korean delegation, shaking hands with his South Korean counterpart Cho Myoung Gyon after their meeting at the truce village of Panmunjom in the demilitarised zone separating the two Koreas on Jan 9.
Mr Ri Son Gwon, head of the North Korean delegation, shaking hands with his South Korean counterpart Cho Myoung Gyon after their meeting at the truce village of Panmunjom in the demilitarised zone separating the two Koreas on Jan 9.PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL - The two Koreas have agreed to hold military talks in what is being seen as a step forward in easing tensions on the peninsula triggered by a string of missile and nuclear tests by Pyongyang.

The breakthrough came on Tuesday (Jan 9) after both sides held their first formal meeting in two years, ostensibly to discuss North Korea’s participation in the upcoming Winter Olympics hosted by the South.

Seoul said it would consider lifting some sanctions temporarily to facilitate North Korea’s attendance in the Games while Pyongyang, in turn, offered to send a delegation to the event, including high-ranking officials, athletes and a team of taekwondo and art performers.

North Korea also agreed to restore a military hotline with South Korea, possibly by Wednesday.

The two sides met at the cross-border truce village of Panmunjom, each represented by a delegation of five officials. 

Noting the day’s sub-zero temperatures, North Korea’s chief delegate Ri Son Gwon joked in his opening remarks that “it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that North-South relations have been more frozen than the weather”.

Mr Ri, chairman of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification, added that he arrived with hopes for a sincere meeting with “precious results”. He even suggested a live broadcast of the talks, but his South Korean counterpart, Unification Minister Cho Myoung Gyon, declined politely, citing the tradition of keeping high-level meetings behind closed doors. 

The talks were closely watched for signs of change in North Korea’s nuclear stance, although none was forthcoming eventually. In fact, Mr Ri made a “strong complaint” about South Korean media reports that they would be about Pyongyang’s nuclear programme.

According to a joint statement, issued after the talks, South Korea had asked the North to stop hostile acts that raised tensions in the region and the North agreed on the need for a peaceful peninsula. 

The statement also said that both sides had agreed to hold further high-level talks to improve ties, as well as working-level talks to discuss details of the North’s participation in the Olympics next month in the alpine county of Pyeongchang in South Korea. 

South Korea’s proposal to hold a reunion of families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War during the Lunar New Year, which falls within the Feb 9-25 Winter Games, was not included in the statement.

South Korean officials however were upbeat in their assessment of the talks with Mr Cho describing it as the first step in restoring and developing inter-Korea ties.

He told reporters: “South-North ties took their first step. As they have been strained for a long time, there are a lot tasks to do.”

Many analysts agreed that yesterday’s meeting was productive and bode well for inter-Korea ties.

Dr Go Myong Hyun of The Asan Institute for Policy Studies think-tank said both sides were careful not to broach touchy subjects such as North Korea’s nuclear disarmament or the cancellation of US-South Korea joint military drills that Pyongyang often denounces as a rehearsal for war.

“Both sides have a strong incentive for this negotiation to go on, and are interested in creating a semi-permanent framework for talks so they can discuss wider issues after the Olympics,” he told The Straits Times. 

Dr Graham Ong-Webb, research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said North Korea’s confirmation to participate in the Olympics “in itself marks the dialogue’s success”.

“This is tangible progress that the South Korean government can actually build on for cultivating peace in the Korean peninsula,” he said.