North and South Korean officials have sat down for their first talks in years, confronting decades of mutual distrust in a search for some positive end to months of soaring military tensions.
The working-level discussions, which began on Sunday at around 10:00am (0100 GMT) in the border truce village of Panmunjom, were intended to pave the way for ministerial-level talks in Seoul on Wednesday.
The agenda 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 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 sizable 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.