Koreas to resume conflict crisis talks
North and South Korea were set to resume top-level talks Sunday, to thrash out a mutually acceptable exit from a high-stakes crisis that has pushed them to the brink of military confrontation.
The discussions at the border truce village of Panmunjom were scheduled to resume at 3:00pm (0600 GMT), after a marathon negotiating session the night before ended in the early hours without final agreement.
Analysts saw the decision to keep talking as a positive sign, with the presidential Blue House in Seoul saying the two sides would “continue to narrow down differences”.
The negotiations began Saturday evening, shortly after a North Korean deadline expired for Seoul to halt loudspeaker propaganda broadcasts across the border or face military action.
Despite Pyongyang’s past record of making dramatic but largely unrealised threats, the ultimatum sent tensions soaring to their highest level for years, with the North re-positioning artillery units and South Korean and US fighter jets flying simulated bombing runs.
Thousands of South Korean civilians living on frontline border islands or near military propaganda units were evacuated from their homes to underground shelters as a preventive measure.
The negotiations in Panmunjom, where the 1950-53 Korean War ceasefire was signed, are being led by South Korean national security adviser Kim Kwan-Jin and his North Korean counterpart Hwang Pyong-So — a close confidante of leader Kim Jong-Un.
They were the highest-level inter-Korean talks for nearly a year — a reflection of the seriousness of the situation.
– ‘Wide discussions’ –
“The two sides had wide discussions on ways to settle the recently-developed situation and to improve inter-Korean relations down the road,” Blue House spokesman Min Kyung-Wook said after the night-long first session.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, a former South Korean foreign minister, welcomed the decision to stay at the negotiating table, urging both Koreas to “redouble” their efforts.
“He encourages both sides to use the resumed discussions to pave the way for de-escalating the situation … on the Korean peninsula,” Ban’s office said in a statement.
Analysts had predicted it would be difficult to find a compromise.
While Pyongyang has staked its pride on getting the propaganda broadcasts stopped, Seoul was anxious to avoid any accord that might seem to reward the North for its belligerence.
The South has refused to turn off the loudspeaker broadcasts until Pyongyang apologises for mine blasts this month that maimed two South Korean soldiers on border patrol.
North Korea denies any responsibility for the explosions and has accused the South of fabricating evidence of its involvement.
“It’s obviously been tough, but the fact that they have agreed to meet again is good news,” said Yang Moo-Jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.
– Nod to future ties –
“Even more encouraging is that they discussed not only ways to extricate themselves from the current crisis, but also ways to develop inter-Korean relations in the future,” Yang told AFP.
South Korea said the initial request for talks had come from the North, despite its aggressive rhetoric and military posturing of recent days.
On the orders of Kim Jong-Un, the North Korean People’s Army (KPA) has been in a “fully armed, wartime state” since Friday, while the foreign ministry in Pyongyang warned Saturday that the situation had “reached the brink of war” and was “hardly controllable”.
Technically, the two Koreas have been at war for the past 65 years, as the Korean War ended with a ceasefire that was never ratified by a formal peace treaty.
Kim Jong-Un’s order to move to a war-footing came after an exchange of artillery fire on Thursday that claimed no casualties but triggered a dangerous spike in cross-border tensions.
There are nearly 30,000 US troops permanently stationed in South Korea, and the US military’s top officer on Saturday reiterated Washington’s commitment to the defence of its ally.
Calls for calm and restraint have also come from China, the North’s main diplomatic protector and economic supporter.
China is keen to avoid any regional flare-up as it seeks to attract world leaders to Beijing next month for a three-day celebration of Japan’s defeat in World War II.