North and South Korea will meet Sunday in a village straddling their heavily armed border for the first government-level talks on the peninsula in more than two years as they try to lower tension and restore stalled projects that once symbolized their rapprochement.
North Korea on Saturday delivered its agreement to talk in Panmunjom through a Red Cross line restored a day earlier, the Unification Ministry said in a text message. Pyongyang had earlier favoured its border city of Kaesong, which contains the industrial park emptied in May after tensions peaked.
Representatives of the rival Koreas met on the peninsula in February 2011 and their nuclear envoys met in Beijing later that year, but government officials from both sides have not met since. Sunday’s meeting would be clearest sign of eased tensions since Pyongyang threatened to attack South Korea and the United States with nuclear missiles earlier this year, and South Korea made counter-threats.
It also comes at a time as their top allies are meeting. President Barack Obama opened a weekend summit on Friday with Chinese President Xi Jinping in California to discuss several topics, including North Korea’s nuclear programs.
China provides the lifeline for North Korea which is 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.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un late last month sent China his special envoy, who reportedly told Chinese President Xi that Pyongyang was willing to return to dialogue. South Korean President Park Geun-hye will travel to Beijing to meet Xi later this month.
The talks between the Koreas 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 the talks at Panmunjom are aimed at setting up higher-level talks. No other details on possible topics were released.
Seoul has proposed holding ministerial talks on Wednesday in Seoul to discuss the jointly run factory complex in Kaesong and other cooperation projects. Pyongyang pulled its 53,000 workers from the factories in April, and Seoul withdrew its last personnel in May.
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.
Three officials from each country will attend the talks on Sunday, the Unification Ministry said. The South Korean delegation, led by a senior ministry official, will depart from Seoul in the morning following a brief meeting with press.
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 counter-strikes, 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 was signed ending the 1950-53 Korean War. That truce has never been replaced with a peace treaty, leaving the two Koreas technically at war.