The head of North Korea's delegation Kim Song Hye, center, shakes hands June 9 with South Korean delegate Kwon Young-yang, right, as South Korea's Unification Policy Officer Chun Hae-sung, second from right, shakes hands with an unidentified North Korean officer before a meeting at the southern side of Panmunjom, which has separated the two Koreas since the Korean War. (South Korean Unification Ministry/AP)
SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA — Government delegates from North and South Korea began preparatory talks Sunday at a “truce village” on their heavily armed border aimed at setting ground rules for a higher-level discussion on easing animosity and restoring stalled rapprochement projects.
The meeting at Panmunjom, where the truce ending the 1950-53 Korean War was signed, is the first of its kind on the Korean Peninsula in more than two years. Success will be judged on whether the delegates can pave the way for a summit between the ministers of each country’s department for cross-border affairs, which South Korea has proposed for Wednesday in Seoul. Such ministerial talks haven’t happened since 2007.
The intense media interest in what’s essentially a meeting of bureaucrats to iron out technical details is an indication of how bad ties between the Koreas have been.
Any dialogue is an improvement on the belligerence that has marked the relationship over recent years, which have seen North Korean nuclear tests and long-range rocket launches, attacks in 2010 blamed on the North that killed 50 South Koreans, and a steady stream in recent months of invective and threats from Pyongyang and counter-vows from Seoul.
“Today’s working-level talks will be a chance to take care of administrative and technical issues in order to successfully host the ministers’ talks,” one of the South Korean delegates, Unification Policy Officer Chun Hae-sung, said in Seoul before the group’s departure for Panmunjom.
The southern delegation will keep in mind, he said, “that the development of South and North Korean relations starts from little things and gradual trust-building.”
During the morning talks, the delegates discussed the agenda for the ministerial meeting, location, date, the number of participants and how long they will stay in Seoul, if the meeting is held there, the Unification Ministry, which is responsible for North Korea issues, said.
Ministry spokesman Kim Hyung-suk told reporters that there were no major disputes and the talks would continue.
Analysts express wariness about North Korea’s intentions, with some seeing the interest in dialogue as part of a pattern where Pyongyang follows aggressive rhetoric and provocations with diplomatic efforts to trade an easing of tension for outside concessions.
Recent months saw North Korean threats of nuclear war, Pyongyang’s claim that the Korean War armistice was void, the closing of a jointly run factory park and a North Korean vow to ramp up production of nuclear bomb fuel.
If the Koreas can arrive at an agreement for ministerial talks, that meeting will likely focus on reopening the factory park in the North Korean border town of Kaesong that was the last remaining symbol of inter-Korean cooperation, and on other scrapped rapprochement projects and reunions of families separated by the Korean War.
Pyongyang pulled its 53,000 workers from the Kaesong factories in April, and Seoul withdrew its last personnel in May.
Success will also mark a victory for South Korean President Park Geun-hye, who took office in February and has maintained through the heightened tensions a policy that combines vows of strong counter-action to any North Korea provocation with efforts to build trust and re-establish dialogue.
It wasn’t immediately clear how long Sunday’s meetings would last; reporters weren’t being allowed access to the venue.
The Koreas have been communicating on a recently restored Red Cross line that Pyongyang shut down during earlier tensions this spring. The site of Sunday’s meeting holds added significance because the armistice ending the Korean War was signed there 60 years ago next month. The Panmunjom truce, however, has never been replaced with a peace treaty, leaving the Korean Peninsula technically at war.
Representatives of the rival Koreas met on the peninsula in February 2011 and their nuclear envoys met in Beijing later that year, but government officials from both sides have not met since.
The meeting follows a summit by U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping in California. White House national security adviser Tom Donilon said Obama and Xi found “quite a bit of alignment” on North Korea and agreed that Pyongyang has to abandon its nuclear weapons aspirations.
China provides a lifeline for a North Korea struggling with energy and other economic needs, and views stability in Pyongyang as crucial for its own economy and border security. But after Pyongyang conducted its third nuclear test in February, China tightened its cross-border trade inspections and banned its state banks from dealing with North Korea’s Foreign Trade Bank.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un late last month sent to China his special envoy, who reportedly told Xi that Pyongyang was willing to return to dialogue. President Park will travel to Beijing to meet Xi later this month.
The talks between the Koreas on Sunday could represent a change in North Korea’s approach, analysts said, or could simply be an effort to ease international demands that it end its development of nuclear weapons, a topic crucial to Washington but initially not a part of the envisioned inter-Korean meetings.
Pyongyang, which is estimated to have a handful of crude nuclear devices, has committed a drumbeat of acts that Washington, Seoul and others deem provocative since Kim Jong Un took over in December 2011 after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il.
AP writer Sam Kim contributed to this report from Seoul.