published Saturday, June 8th, 2013

Koreas agree to meeting in bid to ease tensions

South Korean army soldiers walk by a signboard showing the distance to the North Korean capital Pyongyang and to South's capital Seoul from Imjingang Station near the border village of the Panmunjom in Paju, South Korea, Friday, June 7, 2013.
South Korean army soldiers walk by a signboard showing the distance to the North Korean capital Pyongyang and to South's capital Seoul from Imjingang Station near the border village of the Panmunjom in Paju, South Korea, Friday, June 7, 2013.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

SEOUL, South Korea — North and South Korea will meet Sunday at a village straddling their heavily armed border as the sides try to lower tension and restore projects once seen as symbols of their rapprochement, officials said.

The North delivered its agreement Saturday to hold talks at Panmunjom through a Red Cross line restored a day earlier, the Unification Ministry said in a text message. Pyongyang had earlier favored its border city of Kaesong as the venue.

The agreement to hold the first government-level contact on the peninsula since early 2011 is the latest sign that tension is easing between the countries after Pyongyang threatened to attack South Korea and the United States with nuclear missiles earlier this year.

It also comes as President Barack Obama meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping in California. Xi late last month met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s special envoy in Beijing and received a statement from him that Pyongyang was willing to return to dialogue.

Xi will meet South Korean President Park Geun-hye later this month.

China provides the lifeline for 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.

The talks 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.

The Unification Ministry, which handles cross-border relations, said that the talks at Panmunjom are aimed at setting up higher-level talks on reopening a jointly run factory complex in the North and other cooperation projects. No other details on possible topics were released.

In April, Pyongyang pulled its 53,000 workers from the Kaesong industrial park just north of the border. Seoul withdrew its last personnel in May.

Seoul earlier this week proposed holding ministerial talks next Wednesday in Seoul. Pyongyang requested a lower-level meeting first, citing mistrust between the sides and a lack of dialogue over the years. The countries’ top officials in charge of cross-border relations last met in 2007.

Other items to be discussed when the Koreas hold ministerial talks include stalled South Korean cross-border tours to a North Korean mountain and the reunions of families separated by war.

Pyongyang understands that dialogue with Seoul is a precondition for any meaningful talks with the United States, and the North’s latest overtures are aimed at creating a mood that could lead to U.S.-North Korea negotiations, said Yoo Ho-yeol, a North Korea expert at Korea University in South Korea.

The mood on the Korean Peninsula has been tense since North Korean leader Kim Jong Il died in December 2011 and his son, Kim Jong Un, took over. Pyongyang, which is estimated to have a handful of crude nuclear devices, has committed a drumbeat of acts over the last year that Washington, Seoul and others deem provocative.

During the weeks-long period of animosity marked by North Korean threats of war and South Korean vows of counterstrikes, Pyongyang shut down its military hotline and Red Cross communications line used for exchanging messages on humanitarian and other issues with South Korea.

Panmunjom is where a truce ending the 1950-53 Korean War was signed. That truce has never been replaced with a peace treaty, leaving the two Koreas technically at war.

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