A joint statement, issued on Thursday, said the two sides "agreed to actively improve north-south relations, and to make joint efforts for the peace on the Korean Peninsula".

The agreement came hours after word emerged of a secret meeting last week between US and North Korean officials.

The focus of both efforts was to get Pyongyang to rejoin six-nation negotiations on denuclearisation, but the reclusive communist country, which regularly uses brinksmanship to wring aid from the West, stood firm in resisting any public commitment.

While Seoul had pressed to get some mention of the nuclear issue in a final joint statement at the talks in the North Korean border town of Kaesong, it also was working to salvage some goodwill as the North resisted any commitment on returning to the nuclear bargaining table, saying that normalising strained relations was the top priority.

The statement said a follow-up cabinet-level meeting would be held between 21-24 June in Seoul and that South Korea would begin providing 200,000 tons of fertiliser to the North starting 21 May.

The nuclear issue undoubtedly would be back on the agenda then.