South Korean officials left Seoul Wednesday for the highest level talks with North Korea for years, marking the start of a possible upswing in cooperation between the bitter rivals.
The talks in the border truce village of Panmunjom have no fixed agenda, but are to cover a range of “major” issues, including an upcoming reunion of family members divided by the 1950-53 Korean War, the South’s Unification Ministry said.
The five-day reunion scheduled to begin February 20 is under threat because of North Korean opposition to South Korea-US military drills that kick off a few days later.
South Korean officials said the North had requested the Panmunjom meeting, which will be the first high-level sit-down since South Korean President Park Geun-Hye took office a year ago.
According to an official at the unification ministry, the last official high-level talks were held in December 2007.
Substantive dialogue mostly dried up under Park’s predecessor, president Lee Myung-Bak, who took a tough line with Pyongyang.
An official in the presidential Blue House told AFP the South had agreed to the meeting as a “reciprocal response” to a series of recent conciliatory gestures by North Korea.
The talks were scheduled to start at 10:00am (0100 GMT) on the South side of the border village where the armistice ending the Korean conflict 60 years ago was signed.
The South Korean delegation at Panmunjom was led by Kim Kyou-Hyun, the first deputy director of national security in Park’s administration.
As well as the family reunion, observers said the North was likely to push for a resumption of regular South Korea tours to its Mount Kumgang resort.
The South suspended the tours after a tourist was shot and killed by North Korean soldiers in 2008, and Pyongyang is keen to see the return of what was a lucrative source of hard currency.
The success of the upcoming family reunion event would be key to Seoul considering starting up the tours again.
There are fears the North might cancel the reunion event in protest at South Korea and the United States pushing ahead with their annual joint military exercises.
Pyongyang views the drills as rehearsals for invasion and has repeatedly called on Seoul to call them off, warning at one point of an “unimaginable holocaust” if they went ahead.
Last year’s exercises fuelled an unusually sharp and protracted surge in military tensions, with Pyongyang threatening a pre-emptive nuclear strike, and nuclear-capable US stealth bombers making dummy runs over the Korean peninsula.
The talks in Panmunjom come a day before the arrival in Seoul on Thursday of US Secretary of State John Kerry for a visit focused on North Korea.
The US State Department has said it was “deeply disappointed” by Pyongyang’s decision at the weekend to rescind its invitation to a US envoy to discuss the case of a Korean-American jailed in North Korea.
Ambassador Robert King had hoped to secure the release of Kenneth Bae, who was arrested in November 2012 and later sentenced to 15 years’ hard labour on charges of seeking to topple the North’s government.