SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Military officers from North and South Korea talked inside the heavily guarded Demilitarized Zone on Tuesday in the rivals’ first official dialogue since the North’s deadly artillery barrage of a South Korean island in November.
Tensions on the divided peninsula rose sharply after the attack, which killed four people eight months after the sinking of a South Korean warship killed 46 sailors. The South has blamed a North Korean torpedo attack, but Pyongyang has steadfastly denied involvement in the sinking.
Colonel-level officers of the two Koreas met Tuesday at the border village of Panmunjom to set a date and work out other details for higher-level defense talks aimed at discussing the two attacks last year, according to South Korea’s Defense Ministry.
“It’s not that cold today and I think today’s talks will go well,” Col. Moon Sang-kyun, the chief South Korean delegate, said during a meeting with Unification Ministry officials in Seoul, ahead of his departure to the border.
It’s not clear whether Tuesday’s meeting will set all the details for later talks expected to involve defense chiefs or general-grade officers. If those talks take place, they would be the first such high-level defense talks between the Koreas in more than three years.
Tuesday’s talks were arranged as North Korea pushed for dialogue after weeks of threatening war. South Korean officials have said the North must take responsibility for the two attacks and change its pattern of raising tensions through provocation, then negotiating to win aid.
“The fact the two Koreas are meeting in the aftermath of continued military tensions means that hostility on the Korean peninsula could be reduced,” said Kim Yong-hyun, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Dongguk University.
Pyongyang wants to return to stalled six-nation talks on ending its nuclear weapons program in return for economic aid and other incentives. But South Korea and the U.S. say the North must first exhibit sincerity toward its nuclear disarmament before the talks can resume.
The North’s nuclear capability took renewed urgency in November when a visiting American scientist was shown a uranium enrichment facility that could give North Korea a second way to make atomic bombs. South Korea says that violates a past six-nation deal and U.N. resolutions.
A U.N. Security Council committee on international sanctions on North Korea is expected to report to the council about its committee activities later this month. “We are paying attention to how the uranium enrichment program will be handled” during that meeting, South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman Kim Young-sun told reporters Monday.
The two Koreas technically remain in a state of war because the 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty.
Panmunjom — the venue for Tuesday’s talks — is a cluster of blue huts inside the heavily guarded 154-mile (248-kilometer) -long Demilitarized Zone, which is jointly administered by the American-led U.N. forces and North Korea.
In Seoul, a U.S. envoy on human rights in North Korea met South Korean officials in part of bilateral efforts to coordinate their policies on North Korea. “We’ve had very good, very serious, very thoughtful discussions,” Robert King told reporters in Seoul, after a meeting with South Korea’s top nuclear envoy Wi Sung-lac.