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(3rd LD) Koreas to hold 1st high-level talks in 7 years

2014/02/11 20:33

By Kim Kwang-tae

SEOUL, Feb. 11 (Yonhap) -- South and North Korea will hold their first high-level talks in seven years this week, an official said Tuesday, in a sign of thawing ties amid Pyongyang's recent conciliatory overture toward Seoul.

The two Koreas will meet at the border village of Panmunjom at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Eui-do told reporters.

Kim Kyou-hyun, head of the secretariat of the National Security Council, will represent South Korea while the North Korean side will be headed by Won Dong-yon, the deputy head of the United Front Department of the ruling Workers' Party, a body that handles inter-Korean ties, the spokesman said.

The agreement comes three days after North Korea made a surprise offer for comprehensive discussion on inter-Korean affairs, according to the ministry.

The two sides are expected to discuss upcoming family reunions and other major issues, though no agenda has been set for the talks, according to the spokesman.

The crucial talks -- which could set the tone for inter-Korean ties -- come as the Koreas prepare to hold the reunions at Mount Kumgang, a North Korean scenic resort on the east coast, from Feb. 20-25.

Nine South Korean snow clearing vehicles have been removing snow around the venue where around 2 meters of snow has fallen ahead of the reunions.

The deal also comes a day before U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visits Seoul for discussions on wide-ranging bilateral, regional and global issues including North Korea.

The South and North held their last high-level talks in 2007.

Last month, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un pledged to make aggressive efforts for better inter-Korean ties. The North has since made a series of conciliatory gestures toward South Korea.

The North appears to want to keep up the momentum of inter-Korean dialogue by holding the high-level talks before upcoming military exercises between Seoul and Washington, said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior research fellow at the Sejong Institute, a private security think tank near Seoul.

The North has threatened to call off the reunions in protest of the military drills, which Pyongyang claims are a rehearsal for a nuclear war against it.

Seoul and Washington have vowed to go ahead with the annual drills, which are set to run from late February through April, calling them defensive in nature.

South Korean President Park Geun-hye has urged Pyongyang to show its sincerity through action, calling family reunions a first step toward improving inter-Korean relations.

Millions of Koreans remain separated since the Korean War ended in a cease-fire, not a peace treaty. Family reunions are a pressing humanitarian issue on the divided peninsula, as most of the separated family members are in their 70s and 80s, and wish to see their long-lost relatives before they die.

Bilateral ties plunged sharply last year after the North carried out a third nuclear test and threatened to launch nuclear attacks against South Korea and the United States.

Their ties were thrown into further doubt following the December execution of Jang Song-thaek, the once-powerful uncle of the North's young leader, on charges of treason.

The bloody purge of Jang has sparked concerns that the North may stage provocations against South Korea as it seeks to forge internal unity following the political upheaval.

Pyongyang has a track record of carrying out provocations after making conciliatory gestures toward Seoul.

South Korea's Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin told lawmakers Monday that North Korea appears ready to conduct its fourth nuclear test, but no imminent signs have been detected at its main site on its northeastern tip.