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(LEAD) Koreas hold first high-level talks since 2007

2014/02/12 10:29

SEOUL, Feb. 12 (Yonhap) -- South and North Korea began their first high-level talks in seven years on Wednesday, a crucial meeting that could set the tone for inter-Korean ties after months of tensions.

The rare talks come four days after North Korea made a surprise offer for a comprehensive discussion on inter-Korean relations as an apparent part of its recent conciliatory overtures toward South Korea.

The officials of the Koreas sat down for the talks at the border village of Panmunjom shortly after 10 a.m., South Korea's unification ministry said, without offering any details.

South Korea's chief delegate, Kim Kyou-hyun, said ahead of the talks that he will meet with his North Korean counterpart with "an open attitude to explore the chance of opening a new Korean Peninsula."

   Kim, who heads the secretariat of the National Security Council, told reporters in Seoul that his priority is to ensure that families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War can be reunited later this month as scheduled.

South and North Korea agreed last week to stage the reunions at Mount Kumgang, a North Korean scenic resort on the east coast, from Feb. 20-25.

But the North has later threatened to call off the reunions in protest of upcoming military exercises between Seoul and Washington, 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.

Kim did not say when asked whether he plans to broach the issue of North Korea's nuclear weapons programs, an issue Pyongyang insists should be handled by it and Washington, not Seoul.

The North carried out a third nuclear test a year ago today, drawing international condemnation and tightened U.N. sanctions.

South Korea's Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin said earlier this week that Pyongyang appears ready to conduct its fourth nuclear test, though no imminent signs have been detected at its nuclear test site.

The high-level talks, the first since 2007, come 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.

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.

South Korea has urged Pyongyang to demonstrate its sincerity through actions, not words.

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.