(2nd LD) Koreas to hold inter-Korean talks next week
(ATTN: RECASTS headline, lead; UPDATES throughout with more info)
SEOUL, Nov. 20 (Yonhap) -- South and North Korea agreed Friday to hold a working-level meeting to prepare for high-level talks next week, Seoul's Unification Ministry said, as they seek to improve long-strained inter-Korean ties.
South Korea accepted North Korea's proposal to hold a preparatory meeting for government-level talks on Thursday in the North's zone of the truce village of Panmunjom, according to the Unification Ministry.
Breaking silence for the South's repeated offer for dialogue, the North's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea in charge of daily inter-Korean affairs delivered the message earlier in the day.
"The two sides plan to discuss details over high-level talks, including the timing and venue," a ministry official said.
The move is part of efforts by the two Koreas to implement a landmark inter-Korean deal reached on Aug. 25 to defuse military tension.
Seoul-Pyongyang relations have shown signs of improvement as both sides eked out the deal following heightened tension over a land mine blast blamed on the North in early August. The incident maimed two South Korean soldiers near the border.
In a bid to carry out the deal, the two Koreas held reunions of families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War in late October.
Pyongyang's decision also came as discussion is under way for U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to visit North Korea.
It is not clear if or when Ban will make a rare trip to the North, but if realized, his visit is likely to improve Seoul-Pyongyang relations, analysts said.
President Park Geun-hye said last week that she is open to a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un if the North shows sincerity in giving up its nuclear weapons program and improving inter-Korean ties.
"The North's offer for dialogue appears to be aimed at taking the initiative over inter-Korean affairs," said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies. "Ahead of a planned party congress slated for May, the North seems to show that it is leading efforts to bring peace to the peninsula."
North Korea has seen its international isolation deepen due to its persistent pursuit of nuclear weapons. It conducted nuclear tests in 2006, 2009 and 2013.
It has also faced global condemnation for its dismal human rights record. A U.N. committee adopted a resolution slamming the North's grave situation on Thursday.
Next week's working-level meeting is likely to flesh out details and agenda for high-level talks, but it still remains to be seen whether such talks can be held, experts say.
In June 2013, the two Koreas had agreed to hold high-level talks in Seoul, but the meeting was called off a day before it was to be held as North Korea disputed the level of the chief South Korean negotiator.
Pyongyang has attached preconditions to high-level talks in response to Seoul's previous similar offers.
North Korea has urged Seoul to lift its punitive sanctions on the North and to resume a now-suspended joint tour program at Mount Kumgang on the North's east coast.
But the South has called on the North to hold the talks without strings attached, saying that pending issues can be discussed if the North comes to the dialogue table.
"At next week's talks, the North will likely call on Seoul to lift its sanctions against the North and to reopen the Kumgang tour program," said Yoo Ho-yeol, a professor of North Korean studies at Korea University. "The South is expected to raise the issue of family reunions."
South Korea seeks to hold family reunions on a regular basis, calling on the North to allow such families to exchange letters. But Pyongyang has not responded to Seoul's call.