North, South Korean officials meet for first time in two years

The two governments are showing signs of restarting cooperation after months of elevated tensions. 

Lee Jae-Won/Reuters
A South Korean man looks at the fences guarding the Panmunjom Peace Village, where officials from the two Koreas met for the first time in two years on Sunday.

North and South Korea held their first intergovernmental talks in two years today, ironing out details for higher-level talks this week while showing signs of restarting cooperation after months of high tensions.

Bureaucrats from both Koreas met at the Panmunjom Peace Village on the South Korean side of the demilitarized zone, the site of the signing of the 1953 armistice agreement that ended the combat phase of the Korean War. The main function of today’s meeting was setting the stage for minister-level talks that are scheduled for Wednesday, June 12. The participants at today’s talks agreed on the details for that meeting, which would be the first between top representatives from each country’s body responsible for inter-Korean relations since 2007.

In recent weeks North Korea had sought meetings with South Korean businessmen and members of a civic group, but Seoul refused permission for those individuals to travel to the North, insisting that governmental talks be held first. North Korea acceded to the South’s insistence on intergovernmental talks and on Friday made the proposal for the working-level meeting.

The North’s return to the table could be timed around the recent summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping and President Obama, analysts say.

“What we should pay attention to is the timing of all this, as the agreement [to hold meetings] came just before the Obama-Xi summit. With the North's dialogue gesture, China could urge the US to talk to the North. In this sense, North Korea's agreement to talks can be seen as targeting China and the US as much as South Korea,” says Stanford University professor Gi-Wook Shin.

After that meeting, US officials reported holding a position consistent with China’s on the importance of North Korean denuclearization. China is North Korea’s only major ally, and provides it with crucial aid, but has appeared to grow more impatient with the North’s provocative behavior in recent months. North Korea is believed to be interested in direct dialogue with the United States and recognition as a nuclear power.

On Wednesday’s agenda will be getting North-South cooperation projects back on track, specifically resuming business at the jointly operated Kaesong Industrial Complex, restarting tourism to Mt. Kumgang in North Korea, and organizing meetings between members of families that were divided after the Korean War (1950-53). The Kaesong complex has been idle since North Korea pulled out its 53,000 workers in early April. South Korean trips to Mt. Kumgang have been suspended since 2008 when a tourist was shot dead by a North Korean soldier after straying into a restricted area. The last family reunions were held in 2010.

North Korea could now attempt to lay the groundwork for more aid from Seoul, which would be in line with a pattern identified by analysts whereby Pyongyang makes aggressive moves in order to later negotiate with greater leverage. “North Korea sees an opportunity for improving relations, yet they also do not want to appear to be negotiating from a position of weakness or necessity,” says Timothy Rich, assistant professor of political science at Western Kentucky University.

If those at the minister levels do go ahead and are successful in restarting the rapprochement projects, that would mark a noteworthy advance from the near-war tensions observed in recent months, but would leave thornier issues like North Korean denuclearization still to be discussed.

“Even if the Kaesong Industrial Park is restored, the situation will still have made no significant progress compared to, say, summer 2012. The sides remain distant on more fundamental issues such as denuclearization and interpretation of previous joint communiques and joint declarations,” Hyung-Gu Lynn, professor at the Institute of Asian Research in the University of British Columbia, wrote in an e-mail interview.

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