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(3rd LD) S. Korea offers inter-Korean military, Red Cross talks

2017/07/17 16:58

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(ATTN: ADDS reaction from China's foreign ministry in paras 18-19)

By Lee Chi-dong and Kim Soo-yeon

SEOUL, July 17 (Yonhap) -- South Korea on Monday proposed holding inter-Korean military talks later this week on reducing tensions along the border, a follow-up to President Moon Jae-in's recent peace overture made in his Berlin speech.

Seoul wants to have the rare meeting Friday at Tongilgak, a North Korean building in the truce village of Panmunjom, according to the Ministry of National Defense.

Its aim is to halt "all acts of hostility" near the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) that bisects the two Koreas, the ministry said in a statement read out by Vice Minister Suh Choo-suk.

It requested Pyongyang to respond to the offer through the inter-Korean military communication line in the western region after restoring it.

South Korea's Vice Defense Minister Suh Choo-suk reads out a statement proposing inter-Korean military talks at his ministry's press room on July 17, 2017. (Yonhap) South Korea's Vice Defense Minister Suh Choo-suk reads out a statement proposing inter-Korean military talks at his ministry's press room on July 17, 2017. (Yonhap)

The ministry, however, did not specify agenda items and the level of chief representative apparently for some flexibility.

If held, it would be the first dialogue between the military authorities of the two sides in almost three years. They had a working-level meeting at Panmunjom on Oct. 15, 2014, on easing tensions but failed to reach an agreement.

In the possible new round of negotiations, the South is expected to suggest that the two Koreas stop sending loudspeaker-based propaganda broadcasts across the MDL. The North will likely focus on blocking the cross-border spread of anti-Pyongyang leaflets by activists here.

Observers say chances are relatively high that the North will agree to hold the military talks although it may counter-propose a date.

As the North's leader Kim Jong-un addressed the 7th Congress of the Workers' Party of Korea in May last year, he voiced hope for military talks with the South, saying it would serve as an opportunity for comprehensive consultations on removing possible risks of an armed clash in the border area and easing tension.

The government made a separate proposal on reopening Red Cross talks to discuss ways to resume family reunions on the occasion of the Chuseok holiday in early October.

Such a joint event was last held in October 2015 to arrange the reunion of families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War.

The South's Red Cross delivered the offer of holding the talks on Aug. 1 at the Peace House, a Panmunjom building controlled by the South. It said it's waiting for the North's reply through the now-dormant liaison office in Panmunjom.

A scene at the inter-Korean truce village Panmunjom in this undated file photo (Yonhap) A scene at the inter-Korean truce village Panmunjom in this undated file photo (Yonhap)

The Moon administration is eager to restart humanitarian assistance and exchanges despite no let-up in the North's provocations highlighted by its July 4 firing of a ballistic missile with intercontinental range.

Unveiling his peace vision in the German capital earlier this month, the South's liberal leader stressed the importance of dialogue to address the current situation, which he described as "highly dangerous."

   He said his government will strive to establish a permanent peace regime on the peninsula on top of continued denuclearization efforts.

Stopping hostile acts along the MDL that escalate military tensions can be a first and meaningful step, as Korea marks the 64th anniversary of the Armistice Agreement on July 27, he added.

In their Washington, D.C. summit in late June, Moon won U.S. President Donald Trump's support for Seoul's attempt to take the driving seat in handling security issues directly involving the Korean Peninsula.

China's foreign ministry welcomed South Korea's dialogue offer, saying that the move will help ease tensions on the divided peninsula.

"We hope that the two Koreas will make efforts to break the stalemate and create conditions for a resumption of negotiations," Lu Kang, spokesman of China's foreign ministry, said at a press briefing.

Meanwhile, it's quite uncertain whether the North will return to Red Cross talks.

Pyongyang remains angry about Seoul's refusal to repatriate Kim Ryon-hui, a North Korean defector, saying there will be no formal inter-Korean family reunions without resolving the issue.

The South pointed out that she came here at her own decision and there's no legal ground to send her back, while the North says she has changed her mind to return to the North.