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Koreas hold rare talks to ease tensions

North expected to demand halt to South-US military drills in precursor to potential high-level meeting with Washington.

Last updated: 12 Feb 2014 10:15
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Kim Jong-un is also believed to be seeking a visit to China to reinforce his legitimacy as leader [Reuters]

North and South Korea have held their first high-level talks in seven years, in an apparent effort to improve strained relations.

The talks, held on Wednesday at a border village, came as South Korea and the United States prepared for another round of military drills that have angered Pyongyang, the Reuters news agency reported.

The meeting was set up with unusual speed and great secrecy at the North's suggestion last week, the latest example of conflicting signals from Pyongyang, which abruptly cancelled an invitation for a US envoy to visit.

North Korea is expected to repeat demands for the South and the United States to scrap their military drills, but both sides have many incentives to seek a deal that could break their long stalemate.

"For the North, if it comes back with an accomplishment in terms of improved South-North ties, it will mean a better atmosphere for Kim Jong-un to visit China and a justification to pursue high-level talks with the United States," Cheong Seong-chang, an expert at the Sejong Institute outside Seoul, told Reuters.

Kim is believed to be seeking a visit to China, Pyongyang's greatest ally and main benefactor, to reinforce his legitimacy as leader. Kim took power when his father died suddenly in 2010.

Al Jazeera's Harry Fawcett, reporting from the South Korean capital Seoul, said while the atmosphere surrounding negotiations appeared "calm," a major announcement was unlikely to be made right away.

"We're all a bit in the dark" as to the content of the discussions, our correspondent said.

Charm offensive

Seoul officials told the Associated Press news agency that the meeting was requested by the North, which has launched a recent charm offensive after raising tensions last spring with threats to fire nuclear-tipped missiles at Seoul and Washington.

Pyongyang, which has repeatedly vowed to expand its nuclear arsenal, is trying to build nuclear-armed missiles that can reach the continental US, but most experts say the country has yet to master the technology needed to mount an atomic bomb on a missile.

In addition to demanding a halt to the military drills, North Korea was expected to demand that South Korea agree to restart a lucrative joint tourism project and increase humanitarian aid, AP reported.

South Korea, meanwhile, was looking to discuss ways to ensure that planned reunions of families separated a half-century ago in the Korean War went smoothly, Seoul's Unification Ministry said.

The South Korean delegation is led by President Park Geun-hye's deputy national security adviser, while North Korea has sent the second-highest ranking official in the ruling Workers' Party department charged with ties with the South.

The meeting is the highest level in years between the Koreas, which held a series of similar meetings in 2007.

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Source:
Al Jazeera and agencies
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