Rival Koreas are talking again. What are they saying?

A rare, one-day meeting between officials from South and North Korea came as US troops prepare for joint military exercises with the South.

Unification Ministry/Yonhap/Reuters
Head of the North Korean high-level delegation, Won Tong-yon (3rd l.) shakes hands with his South Korean counterpart Kim Kyou-hyun (2nd r.) during their talks at the Peace House on the southern side of the truce village of Panmunjom in the demilitarized zone, north of Seoul, South Korea, February 12, 2014.

North and South Korea negotiators agreed Wednesday in their first high-level talks in more than six years on the need to “start building trust,” but remained apart on specific issues.

In lengthy hours of negotiations at the truce village of Panmunjom, however, North Korean negotiators hinted at a more flexible position on upcoming US-South Korean military exercises and plans for reunions later this month of families divided by the Korean War.

South Korea’s unification ministry, in a brief summary of the talks, said the North Korean team had called for postponing the war games until after the reunions. The summary’s wording suggests that North Korea may reluctantly go through with the reunions, which would last for several days and may be over before the exercises begin.

Although the talks yielded no real breakthrough, the 13 hours of facetime between the negotiators may signal that the North wants to soften its tough policy toward South Korea and the US while dealing with its own internal problems.

It was “especially noteworthy that North Korea took the initiative of calling for the talks,” said the ministry in its summary. A ministry official said the request was a surprise and “not something we expected from the North.”

While the dialogue might have seemed frosty, the mood was a vast improvement over previous meetings that have been brief and acrimonious. The talks wound up with both sides agreeing on the need to “follow up” with more meetings – though there was no indication of when. North Korea has indicated that family reunions, the first since 2010, are likely; a South Korean team visited the reunion site at Mt. Kumgang last weekend.

In its summary of Wednesday’s meeting, South Korea said the North had demanded an end to “hostile military reaction" – including US-South Korean military exercises – and “the cessation of propaganda.” The South Korean response was that the North Korean position was not acceptable since the reunions are “based on genuine humanitarian issues” while the exercises are an unrelated military issue.

The North Koreans also called for the South Korean government to stop media criticism of the North. The South Korean side “made clear,” said the unification ministry, “that controlling the media cannot be done here.”

The view in Seoul is that North and South are both looking for some measure of reconciliation. While North Korea wages what the South Korean media describes as a “charm offensive,” South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye is enunciating “trustpolitik” – a campaign to win the North’s trust for the mutual benefit of both Koreas.

The two sides seem to want badly to find common ground. “North Korea’s peace offensive is like a clinch in boxing,” says Choi Ji-wook, North Korea expert at the Korea Institute of National Unification. “It is different from a hug. North Korea has all kinds of problems, internal uncertainties,” referring to the purge of those associated with Jang Song-thaek, the top official who was executed in December for posing a challenge to dictator Kim Jong-un.

“Of course, our government has to take a positive response,” says Paik Hak-soon, director for North Korean studies at the Sejong Intitute, which often carries out research projects for the government. “There will be positive results. South Korea cannot ignore the North’s initiative.”

One reason is that President Park, immersed in domestic political problems, “is very interested to cut down North Korean military provocations and reduce the level of tensions,” says Shim Jae-hoon, a long-time political commentator here.

Both North and South Korea also are driven by pressure from powerful allies – China, the source of most of North Korea’s fuel and half its food, and the United States, which has about 29,000 troops in the South.

China sent a diplomatic delegation to North Korea last week for the first time since Jang Song-thaek’s execution, and US Secretary of State John Kerry arrives here Thursday for a day of talks before going on to Beijing on Friday.

“North Korea is in a dire situation,” says Mr. Shim. “North Korean sanctions are beginning to bite.” 

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