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June 10, 2013

High-Level Korean Talks to Resume After Six Years

by Steve Herman

South Korean officials are expressing hope resuming high-level talks with the rival North - scheduled for Seoul on Wednesday will lead to a significant thawing of tension on the peninsula.

South Korean President Park Geun-hye is expressing hope about the first high-level dialogue with the North that her government will host.

Park on Monday, in a weekly meeting with senior secretaries, said she is looking to Wednesday's talks proceeding in a “forward-moving manner.”

The last such high-level encounter took place in 2007. That was before relations between the two Koreas - which have no diplomatic ties - deteriorated under Park's predecessor, Lee Myung-bak. He had pledged to link aid for the impoverished North with progress through international diplomacy to end Pyongyang's nuclear programs.

The two Koreas held marathon talks with mid-level officials at the Panmunjom truce village Sunday through early Monday.

They reached partial agreement on an agenda, which is to include how to revive two stalled inter-Korean joint ventures in the North: the Kaesong Industrial Zone and the Mt. Keumgang tourism complex. They also agreed to discuss resuming meetings of separated families on the peninsula.

Beyond that, there was a lack of harmony, according to a Unification Ministry senior official, Chun Hae-sung.

Chun says there was no agreement on the level of the delegation and on several agenda items and that is why Seoul and Pyongyang have issued separate statements.

The North says the Seoul discussions will also include how to commemorate previous joint statements and declarations from 1972 and 2002, as well as “private traffic and contact and the pursuit of collaborative efforts.”

South Korea's Unification Ministry, after the Sunday-morning session at Panmunjom, had said agreement had been reached for direct ministerial dialogue in Seoul. But, by the next morning, that characterization had been watered down to “inter-Korean authorities' talks.”

Some analysts quickly inferred the South had given in to the North's refusal to commit to officially deeming it “ministerial talks.”

A North Korean radio announcer read Pyongyang's version of what was supposed to have been a joint news release (as the eighth item) in the 7 a.m. Monday newscast.

The announcer says each delegation will be comprised of five members, with the North's delegation headed by a “minister-level person in authority.” But it did not name who that would be.

Media reports in Seoul say South Korean officials pressed the North to agree to send Kim Yan Gon, director of the United Front Department, perceived as a relative moderate on inter-Korean issues.

Ministers of the two Koreas met frequently between 2000 and 2007 but not since then.

Last week, the Communist North called for a resumption of inter-Korean dialogue after it engaged in a period of intense bellicose rhetoric and provocative nuclear and missile tests, which sent tensions on the peninsula to the highest level in decades.

Pyongyang also expressed anger about joint U.S.-South Korean annual military drills that, this year, included publicized flights of American bombers, capable of carrying nuclear weapons.

The direct discussions mark a significant reversal for the North, which is under international sanctions for its ballistic missile and nuclear weapons development.

The three-year Korean conflict ended in 1953 with a truce rather than a peace treaty, technically leaving the peninsula in a state of war.