After the longest consecutive talks ever held between North and South Korea, the two sides came to an historic agreement early Tuesday defusing tensions that could have ignited a wider armed conflict.
In a climax to nearly non-stop talks at the truce village of Panmunjom, North Korea agreed to apologize for having set a landmine that severely wounded two South Korean army sergeants. South Korea, at the same time, acceded to the North's demand to stop loud broadcasts of music and news, including those making light of Kim Jong-un, whose status in the North as leader is one of a near-deity.
Never before have the two Koreas come to terms with each other after long talks on such sensitive issues. The three days of talks paved the way for further periodic meetings, including this September when officials will meet to discuss another round of visits by family members separated by the Korean War. The two sides also agreed to pull back forces that have advanced on both sides of the demilitarized zone in recent days.
South Korea's national security adviser, Kim Kwan-jin, looking haggard after having been awake for most of the negotiations, announced the agreement at the Blue House, the center of presidential power here, shortly after 2 a.m. after returning from Panmunjom, 40 miles to the north.
Vice Marshal Hwang Pyong-so, political chief of the North's armed forces and Kim Jong-un's No. 2, led the talks for North Korean side. He sat across the table from Mr. Kim, the top national security adviser to South Korea's President Park Geun-hye.
Apology is unexpected and significant
The talks were at the highest level between the two Koreas other than the 2000 summit between Kim Jong-il and Kim Dae-jung and an October 2007 summit between Kim Jong-il and Kim Dae-jung's successor, Roh Moo-hyun. Both those summits were in Pyongyang.
The most significant aspect of the deal appeared to be that North Korea had apologized for the mines planted in the southern section of the DMZ. That incident precipitated South Korea’s resumption of loudspeaker broadcasts, which it had ended in 2004. North Korea has little history of apologies, analysts say.
US and South Korean forces are currently holding military exercises about 20 miles south of the DMZ. Speaking earlier in the day, Major General Ted Martin, commander of the Second Infantry division, spoke of overwhelming US and South Korean firepower combined with an armistice that has lasted since 1953 but was now being tested after last week's rocket and artillery exchanges.
"It's a very volatile area," says General Martin, gazing on desolate low-lying mountains south of the DMZ, the historic route invasion route to Seoul. "Tensions are high,” he says. "Hopefully we'll be able to maintain the armistice."
North Korean mobilization of 1.1 million troops
The exchange of fire between the two Koreas brought a sharp rise in tensions on the peninsula while the North mobilized thousands of extra troops along its side of the DMZ. Half the North's 1.1 million troops are already stationed within 50 miles of the border.
But such escalation also produced a rationale for talks, which began Saturday at Panmunjom, lasted for 10 hours, then resumed Sunday afternoon, went all day Monday and ended at 1 a.m. Tuesday
The sheer duration of the talks had fueled speculation of either a very positive or very negative outcome.
On the positive side of the ledger, there was hope the talks were ranging far beyond the immediate military impasse. With little dialogue over the years, this could yield a chance for both sides to exchange views in a useful way, some analysts felt. But pessimists noted that the two sides could simply be at loggerheads and that meant armed conflict could erupt.
The immediate problem was North Korea's threat to fire on tiers of South Korean loudspeakers broadcasting news and music clearly audible for several miles.
The stand-off began Thursday after North Korea fired a rocket across the line and South Korean gunners fired "dozens" of 155-mm artillery rounds into North Korean positions. North Korea has rapidly beefed up its forces above the line since leader Kim Jong-un declared a "semi-state of war" and told them to be "combat ready."
After years of North Korean rhetorical attacks, including threats to turn the capital Seoul into "a sea of fire," it was difficult to absorb the reality that now may be different.
"I've been here before," said Sergeant Preston Laybon, chief of a self-propelled 155-mm howitzer pointed toward the hills below the DMZ. "I'm worried. You just gotta be alert."
Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Tackberry, commander of a battalion of multiple rocket launchers, linked the North Korean threats to the war games. "This is my second tour here," he said. "Every time we do these exercises, the rhetoric is there."