Officials from the two Koreas met on Monday in North Korea to discuss their joint industrial complex just days after an exchange of gunfire at sea emphasized the constant security threat on the divided peninsula.
North Korea lobbed dozens of shells toward the western sea border last week, prompting South Korea to respond with a barrage of warning shots. Pyongyang called it a military exercise, and South Korean officials reported no casualties or damage.
Two no-sail zones ordered by North Korea early last week just before the fracas remain in place, and on Monday the Yonhap news agency in Seoul said that Pyongyang issued notices for five new no-sail zones: four off the west coast and one off the east.
The poorly marked sea border is a constant source of tension between the Koreas. Their navies fought a skirmish in November that left one North Korean sailor dead and three others wounded, and engaged in bloodier battles in the area in 1999 and 2002.
Despite the flare-up in tensions, officials met at the North Korean border town of Kaesong as scheduled to discuss their joint factory park, Seoul’s Unification Ministry said.
Since 2004, the Kaesong complex has combined South Korean capital and know-how with cheap North Korean labour - a key symbol of cooperation between the wartime rivals.
Tensions last year between the Koreas, which technically remain in a state of war because the two have not signed a peace treaty, put the project in jeopardy.
On Monday, the North repeated its call for a peace treaty, criticizing Washington for raising tensions by keeping troops in South Korea and cementing its military alliance with Seoul.
The U.S. policy is “nothing but an attempt to stifle (North Korea) by force and to hold unchallenged military hegemony in the region,” North Korea’s main Rodong Sinmun newspaper said in commentary carried by the official Korean Central News Agency.
North Korea maintains that it was forced to develop its nuclear weapons programme as a defence against the U.S. military presence in rival South Korea. Last year, it quit the ongoing six-party negotiations aimed at persuading it to give up its nuclear arsenal in exchange for aid.
In recent months, however, North Korea has been reaching out to Washington and Seoul.
Officials from the two Koreas met secretly in November to discuss a possible inter-Korean summit, but failed to make a breakthrough, the Chosun Ilbo newspaper said on Monday, citing unidentified government and ruling party officials.
The Unification Ministry and the ruling Grand National Party said they could not confirm the report.
President Lee Myung-bak told the BBC in an interview aired on Friday from Davos that a meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il “could probably” take place within the year.
Mr. Lee’s office said the president was only repeating his willingness to meet Mr. Kim at any time if such a summit promotes peace on the peninsula and North Korea’s nuclear disarmament.
Mr. Kim met Mr. Lee’s two predecessors in summits in North Korea in 2000 and 2007. Mr. Lee, however, has taken a tougher approach towards North Korea since taking office in 2008.