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(Yonhap Feature) Koreas sit down for talks amid hopes for better ties

2018/01/09 14:59

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By Kim Soo-yeon and Joint Press Corps

PANMUNJOM, Korea, Jan. 9 (Yonhap) -- The first thing the two Koreas shared during their first talks in two years on Tuesday was words about the cold weather, a metaphor for years of frozen ties and a requirement for the success of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in the South.

Senior officials from the two sides gathered at the border village of Panmunjom to discuss the North's participation in the Olympics and ways to restore relations.

"It is not an exaggeration that inter-Korean ties remain frozen more severely than the weather," Ri Son-gwon, North Korea's chief delegate, said at the start of the talks.

"But aspiration for better ties opened up these high-level talks, driven by something like an undercurrent beneath thick ice that flows ceaselessly without freezing."

   Ri's South Korean counterpart Cho Myoung-gyon responded kindly, saying the chilly weather and heavy snow of this winter offered good conditions for the Olympics. Even better are "the precious guests" from the North who would help make PyeongChang a venue for promoting peace.

"It is said well begun is half done," Cho said. "I hope that (the two sides) can hold talks with determination and persistence."

  

This photo, taken by the Joint Press Corps on Jan. 9, 2018, shows South Korea's chief delegate Cho Myoung-gyon (L) shaking hands with his North Korean counterpart Ri Son-gwon before beginning high-level inter-Korean talks. (Yonhap) This photo, taken by the Joint Press Corps on Jan. 9, 2018, shows South Korea's chief delegate Cho Myoung-gyon (L) shaking hands with his North Korean counterpart Ri Son-gwon before beginning high-level inter-Korean talks. (Yonhap)

It would be fair to say that few imagined inter-Korean dialogue could be held so soon, given North Korea's defiant pursuit of its nuclear and missile programs. The North conducted its sixth nuclear test and fired three intercontinental ballistic missiles last year.

But in a dramatic turn, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un expressed in his New Year's Day message a willingness to send a delegation to the PyeongChang Winter Olympics to be held in the South next month.

North Korea accepted Seoul's dialogue offer Friday after the South and the United States agreed to delay their military drills until after the Olympics. The two Koreas also reopened a border hotline after a nearly two-year suspension.

"It would be good that the resumption of inter-Korean talks could set the tone for an improvement in ties between the Koreas and that better relations could become a small catalyst for helping resolve the North Korean nuclear issue," Minister Cho said Friday.

South and North Korea still remain technically at war since the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce, not in a peace treaty.

Since Red Cross societies from the two Koreas had their first contact in 1971, the countries held more than 640 talks over issues ranging from military to humanitarian matters until 2015, according to Seoul's unification ministry. They held inter-Korean summits in 2000 and 2007.

Nearly 55 percent of the talks were held at Panmunjom, some 60 kilometers northwest of Seoul, where the Armistice Agreement that effectively ended the war was signed.

Observers have paid keen attention to whether Tuesday's talks would set the tone for bringing peace to the divided peninsula, despite concerns that the North may be launching a "deceptive" peace offensive to weaken international sanctions and drive a wedge in the Seoul-Washington alliance.

Tensions intensified last year over the wayward regime's provocations and amid exchanges of bellicose rhetoric and personal insults between the North's leader and U.S. President Donald Trump.

Liberal President Moon Jae-in took office in May last year with his two-track strategy of seeking sanctions and dialogue in dealing with the North. He wants South Korea to sit in the "driver's seat" when handling North Korea affairs.

The government hopes that better inter-Korean relations can help pave the way for the resolution of North Korea's nuclear issue and broader talks between the U.S. and North Korea.

Cho, 61, is a veteran negotiator with extensive experience in inter-Korean dialogue. He helped prepare for the inter-Korean summit in 2007 under a liberal administration.

His counterpart Ri, known as a hard-liner with a military background, was mainly involved in working-level military talks in the past.

Ri is the chairman of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country, North Korea's state agency in charge of inter-Korean affairs. The organ was upgraded to a state apparatus in June 2016 from an offshoot of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea.

"I came here with hopes that the two Koreas hold talks with a sincere and faithful attitude to give precious results to the Korean people, who harbor high expectations for this meeting, as the first new year's gift," Ri said.

Main agenda items for the meeting will focus on North Korea's participation in the Olympics, but broader discussions for inter-Korean ties are also expected to be held.

"The two sides are likely to comprehensively discuss issues of mutual concern. Everything cannot be agreed upon in a single meeting. It will be meaningful that they could sound out each other's intents," said Kim Yong-hyun, a professor at Dongguk University. "This meeting should pave the way for follow-up working-level talks."

   The government is expected to renew its July proposal to hold military talks on easing border tensions and a Red Cross meeting to discuss reunions of war-torn families. North Korea has not responded to Seoul's offer.

The South could raise North Korea's denuclearization issue at a time when Pyongyang claims to have developed an ICBM capable of striking the whole U.S. mainland.

North Korea has used diplomacy and talks to extract economic and other concessions from South Korea and the U.S. It previously agreed with Washington to suspend nuclear and missile tests in exchange for aid, but those deals eventually fell apart.

Pyongyang now claims that it will not put its nuclear weapons on the negotiation table.

"The North's nukes probably could not be discussed during Tuesday's meeting. We need to make inter-Korean talks lay the foundation for U.S.-North Korea negotiations," said Shin Beom-chul, a professor at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy.

For North Korea, its priority may be placed on its call for the South and the U.S. to halt their joint military drills, which Pyongyang has long denounced as a war rehearsal. It could also urge the suspension of Washington's regular deployment of strategic assets near the Korean Peninsula.

Seoul and Washington's decision not to hold the drills during the games apparently affected the North's acceptance of talks. But Pyongyang may make provocative acts again if the allies resume drills after the Winter Games.

Ken Gause, a senior analyst at the U.S.-based CNA Corp., called for caution in interpreting North Korea's actions "in black and white terms."

   "Its strategy exists in a gray zone," he said. "Therefore, engagement is vital to moving forward and not falling back into the hole we found ourselves in 2017, when we relied on pressure and preconditions to solve the North Korea problem."

  

This photo, taken by the Joint Press Corps on Jan. 9, 2018, shows South Korea's and North Korea's delegations walking to the venue for their high-level talks. (Yonhap) This photo, taken by the Joint Press Corps on Jan. 9, 2018, shows South Korea's and North Korea's delegations walking to the venue for their high-level talks. (Yonhap)

sooyeon@yna.co.kr

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