Head of the North Korean high-level delegation Won Tong Yon shakes hands with his South Korean counterpart Kim Kyou-hyun during their talks Wednesday at the truce village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarised Zone. (AFP)
BEIJING — Senior officials for North and South Korea met Wednesday for the first high-level talks between the two foes in seven years ahead of a visit to Seoul by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
No immediate results were made public after the meeting, held at the truce village of Panmunjom, beside the heavily militarized border still dividing North and South Korea.
The gathering had been requested by Pyongyang in what appears the latest salvo of the North's recent charm offensive aimed at improving long-tense ties with South Korea.
Analysts in Seoul, the South Korean capital, welcomed the resumption of dialogue but cautioned that Pyongyang is unlikely to make the moves toward halting its nuclear program that Washington has demanded.
Kerry visits Seoul, an ally of the United States, on Thursday and Friday for talks on North Korea. He then flies to China, the North's only significant ally, whose assertive territorial claims have upset several neighbors, most notably Japan, and heightened the danger of an accidental collision at sea or in the air.
Families divided by the Korean War provided one of the main agenda points Wednesday. The two sides discussed reunions planned for next week of families split by the 1950-53 war.
Another likely issue was the large-scale military exercises starting Feb. 24 between South Korea and the USA. The annual exercises enraged Pyongyang last year.
The North Korean delegation, led by Won Tong Yon, a senior official in the North's ruling Workers Party, crossed to the south side of Panmunjom for the meeting inside South Korea's "Peace House," where senior national security official Kim Kyou-hyun led the South Korean delegation.
Earlier, Kim told reporters he entered the talks with "an open attitude to explore the chance of opening a new chapter on the Korean Peninsula."
The meeting represented the first high-level bilateral meeting since 2007. Given North Korea's history of canceling talks, and the heightened tensions over the past year, the meeting was a "good sign" but South Korea should still question the North's sincerity, said Choi Jinwook, a senior research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification, a government-funded think tank in Seoul.
The North Koreans "are using this dialogue to gain support from South Korean public opinion. They are playing a game," he said. "This is a charm offensive, it's too early to say this is a policy change."
Pyongyang's recent overtures to Seoul is in contrast to its usual threats of war and resemble previous efforts at reaching out in 1972 and 1991, said Choi. The recent execution of the uncle of North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un reveals the unstable political situation there, he said.
By making "nice gestures' to South Korea, Pyongyang hopes to buy time and draw South Korea into a peaceful "clinch," he said.
"South Korean public opinion is the most important leverage North Korea can exercise when handling South Korea," said Choi. "South Koreans want to talk, as we don't want too much tension, yet we also want to be proud of ourselves and not play their game."
Choi expects Pyongyang will allow the family reunions to go ahead but won't make concessions on its nuclear program.
Chung Young-chul, a North Korea expert at Sogang University's Graduate School of Public Policy in Seoul, said North Korea has shown a "strong" and "genuine" will to improve relations with the South.
The military exercises later this month pose a major obstacle, "but if we can control the (current) low-level crisis, we have a good opportunity to make better relations," he said.
The driving force behind North Korea's warmer approach is the need to rebuild its economy, said Chung.
"Cooperation between South and North Korea, especially on the economy, is very important to the North Korean economy," he said.
In the short term, North Korea will not abandon its nuclear weapon program, but they will use it as a bargaining chip to engage the USA in direct talks aimed at securing a peace treaty and normalizing relations, said Chung.
The North's state news agency, KCNA, said the nation is "sincere" and "steadfast" in its efforts to improve relations with South Korea and end the peninsula's "history of national division and confrontation."
By contrast, the United States "is the very one that disturbs the reconciliation and unity of the Korean nation and wrecks the peace and stability in the peninsula," said a KCNA commentary.
"The United States is determined not to talk with North Korea, and China is very upset with North Korea's behavior, so South Korea is about the only country they can talk to," said Choi.