North and South Korean officials headed for their first talks in years on Sunday, confronting decades of mutual distrust in a search for some positive end to months of soaring military tensions.
The working-level discussions in the border truce village of Panmunjom are intended to pave the way for ministerial-level talks in Seoul on Wednesday.
The agenda is focused on restoring suspended commercial links, including the Kaesong joint industrial complex that the North effectively shut down in April as tensions between the historic rivals peaked.
The South’s three-person delegation, led by the director of the Unification Ministry, left Seoul just before 8:00 am (2300 GMT Saturday) for Panmunjom, where the meeting was scheduled to begin two hours later.
The talks came about after an unexpected reversal on Thursday from North Korea, which suddenly dropped its default tone of high-decibel belligerence and proposed opening a dialogue.
South Korea responded swiftly with its offer of a ministerial meeting in Seoul, the North countered with a request for lower-level talks first and — after some relatively benign to-and-fro about the best venue — Sunday’s meet in Panmunjom was agreed.
In a further signal of intent, North Korea on Friday restored its official hotline with the South, which it had severed in March.
The two Koreas last held working talks in February 2011, and they have not met at the ministerial level since 2007.
The move towards dialogue has been broadly welcomed — given the threats of nuclear war that were being flung around in April and May — but there is sizeable scepticism in the South and elsewhere about Pyongyang’s intentions.
“The North Korean offer has all of the hallmarks of Pyongyang’s diplomacy,” said Stephan Haggard, a North Korea expert at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.
“Pyongyang is ‘sincerely’ and ‘magnanimously’ inviting the South to fix, and pay for, problems of the North’s own creation,” Haggard said.
It was the North’s decision to withdraw its 53,000 workers in early April that closed Kaesong which, until then, had proved remarkably resilient to the regular upheavals in inter-Korean relations.
The North also wants to discuss resuming tours by South Koreans to its Mount Kumgang resort. These were suspended after a North Korean soldier shot dead a South Korean tourist there in July 2008.
Kaesong and Mount Kumgang were both significant sources of scarce foreign currency for North Korea, which is squeezed by UN sanctions imposed over its nuclear weapons programme.
There are also suggestions that Pyongyang was playing to a specific audience by proposing talks just before US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping sat down for their crucial summit in California.
“The offer was transparently timed to coincide with the Obama-Xi summit, suggesting — probably wrongly — that the North is willing to do something substantive to unfreeze relations on the peninsula,” said Haggard.
China, the North’s sole major ally and economic benefactor, has been under US pressure to restrain its neighbour and has pushed Pyongyang to drop its destabilising strategy of confrontation.
On Saturday, Obama and Xi closely consulted on North Korea’s recent nuclear brinkmanship, and agreed to work together on the “denuclearisation” of the Korean peninsula, US National Security Advisor Tom Donilon said.
The two men achieved “quite a bit of alignment” on the issue, Donilon said, praising recent steps taken by Beijing to express disapproval of its nominal ally.
Analysts say South Korea will approach talks with Pyongyang with a caution born of long experience.
President Park Geun-Hye, who took office in February with a promise of greater engagement with Pyongyang, has welcomed the initiative.
But she remains adamant that any substantive dialogue on wider issues can only take place if the North shows some tangible commitment to abandoning its nuclear weapons programme.
North Korea has been equally emphatic in declaring its nuclear deterrent is not up for negotiation.
It was the North’s nuclear test in February — and subsequent UN sanctions — that triggered the recent crisis that saw Pyongyang threaten both the South and the United States with pre-emptive nuclear strikes.
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