SEOUL — North and South Korea have held their highest level talks in seven years, raising hopes for improved relations between the two nations.
North Korea requested the unexpected high-level talks that opened Wednesday. South Korea said there is no formal agenda or timetable, but that the talks would include plans for family reunions.
Officials from the two Koreas met in the truce village of Panmunjom, along the heavily fortified border known as the demilitarized zone (DMZ).
South Korea sent representatives from the office of the president and Ministries of Unification and Defense. The North Korean officials were from the Workers' Party of Korea, the military and the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea.
Kim Yong-hyun, a North Korean studies professor at Dongguk University, said the stepped-up dialogue indicates North Korea wants to present a better image and resume six-nation negotiations on its nuclear programs.
On the other hand, Kim said, the talks could also be viewed as North Korea trying to show a warm gesture indirectly towards the United States. Coming one day ahead of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's visit to South Korea, he said, Pyongyang may be demonstrating its intention to improve inter-Korean relations.
North Korea is pushing for a resumption of nuclear talks involving the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United states. However, Washington, Seoul and Tokyo want to see sincere gestures from Pyongyang before returning to negotiations.
The high-level talks are also a week before rescheduled reunions of 180 families separated since the 1950s Korean War.
The reunions, the first since 2010, were planned to take place last September, but North Korea postponed them, citing what it described as a hostile and arrogant attitude from South Korea.
Pyongyang last month agreed to six days of reunions from February 20 at its Mount Kumgang resort. However, last week it threatened to once again scuttle the plan unless the United States and South Korea cancel joint military drills.
North Korea considers the annual exercises preparation for an invasion while Washington and Seoul say they are to maintain readiness for Pyongyang's provocations.
Despite the tension, political analyst Kim said North Korea is not likely to delay the reunions again.
He said that if North Korea does postpone the family reunions again, it would endure scathing criticism.
Regardless, the reunions this time could be postponed by bad weather. The Mount Kumgang resort area was hit this week with two meters of snow. South Korea sent nine snow plows to clear roads leading up to the venue, but more snow is expected.
The last high-level talks between the two Koreas led to the 2007 summit meeting in Pyongyang between former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun.
However, relations plummeted afterwards over North Korea's pursuit of nuclear and long-range weapons, the deadly sinking in 2010 of a South Korean navy ship and the shelling of a South Korean island.
Former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Donald Gregg, an advocate for dialogue, is visiting Pyongyang for the Pacific Century Institute. Tom Plate, one of the institute's board members, said the trip is not aimed at securing the release of detained U.S. citizen Kenneth Bae, but they would welcome any opportunity to help.
“I can only give you the psychology of the team going... that's up there. And, that is that they do not underestimate the intelligence of the North Korean government or its officials. And, I think they feel it would be impolite to raise the issue. But, at the same time, I think they would be astonished if their counterparts up there were not aware that they would like to be some help if that were possible,” said Plate.
The U.S. State Department last weekend said Pyongyang, for the second time, withdrew an invitation for special envoy Robert King come to discuss releasing Bae.
The American missionary has been detained for over a year, part of a 15-year sentence for hostile acts against the state. Despite health issues, he was recently transferred from a hospital to a labor camp.
U.S. civil rights activist Jesse Jackson volunteered to go to North Korea, if invited, to seek Bae's release on behalf of his family. The State Department said it would support such efforts.
VOA Seoul Bureau Producer Youmi Kim contributed to this report.