South Korea and US remain cautious as Pyongyang agrees to hold high-level talks with Seoul on Tuesday

A television news broadcast shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's New Year's speech, at a railway station in Seoul on Jan 1, 2018.
A television news broadcast shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's New Year's speech, at a railway station in Seoul on Jan 1, 2018.PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL - Even as North Korea agreed to hold high-level talks with the South next Tuesday, Seoul and its ally Washington took care to stress that the dialogue will be focused on Pyong- yang's participation in next month's Winter Olympics and not on its nuclear programme.

The North's response on Friday (Jan 5) came hours after South Korean President Moon Jae In and his US counterpart Donald Trump agreed in a phone conversation to postpone joint military drills until after the Games.

China and Russia welcomed the positive development on the Korean peninsula, while Japan expressed concern and called for vigilance amid the mood for talks.

In a fax sent via a restored inter-Korea phone hotline on Friday morning, Pyongyang informed Seoul that it will send representatives to the talks to be held on the South Korean side of the border truce village of Panmunjom.

The fax, addressed to Unification Minister Cho Myung Gyon, was sent by Mr Ri Son Gwon, chairman of North Korea's Committee for Peaceful Reunification, who also announced the reopening of the hotline on Wednesday.

The talks will be the first between the two sides since December 2015.

South Korea's presidential office said the "highest priority" will be on North's participation in the Winter Games. Other items like improving inter-Korea ties will be discussed only after Pyongyang's participation is finalised, an official said.

Mr Moon, in a meeting with a civic organisation on Friday, gave the assurance that he "will not just naively push for dialogue".

In Washington, State Department spokesman Heather Nauert said the talks "will be limited" to the Winter Games and "some other domestic matters... not beyond that".

"This is not something where (South Korea) is going to go off freelancing or having lots of conversations with them," she said.

China's special envoy for North Korea Kong Xuanyou welcomed the positive developments on the Korean peninsula but also warned of complicated challenges ahead.

 

Mr Kong, who is Assistant Foreign Minister, was in Seoul on Friday for talks with his South Korean counterpart. He voiced hope that Beijing and Seoul will continue to strengthen strategic communications based on agreements reached when Mr Moon met Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing last month.

Russia welcomed the decision to resume dialogue, with a Foreign Ministry spokesman cited as saying that Moscow hopes "this positive trend will be underpinned by concrete agreements aiming at a settlement in the Korean peninsula".

South Korea is said to be planning to negotiate with the North to form a joint Korean Olympics team for the opening and closing ceremonies, or a joint cheering squad, according to local reports.