By Giles Hewitt, AFP
Seoul (AFP) – North and South Korea agreed Friday to hold rare talks next week, aimed at setting up a high-level dialogue that might provide the foundation for a sustainable improvement in cross-border ties.
The talks, to be held on November 26 in the border truce village of Panmunjom, will be the first inter-governmental interaction since officials met there in August to defuse a crisis that had pushed both sides to the brink of an armed conflict.
That meeting ended with a joint agreement that included a commitment to resume a high-level dialogue, although no precise timeline was given.
Seoul’s Unification Ministry said talks proposals sent to Pyongyang in September and October had failed to garner a response.
Then on Thursday, the North’s official KCNA news agency said the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea, which handles relations with the South, had sent Seoul a notice proposing the November 26 meeting.
“We have accepted,” a Unification Ministry official said.
Under the terms of the August agreement, Seoul switched off loudspeakers blasting propaganda messages across the border after the North expressed regret over recent mine blasts that maimed two South Korean soldiers.
The South interpreted the regret as an “apology” but the North’s powerful National Defence Commission has since stressed that it was meant only as an expression of sympathy.
– Diplomatic shifts –
Next week’s talks come amid diplomatic shifts in the Northeast Asia region that have left North Korea looking more isolated than ever, with Seoul moving closer to Pyongyang’s main diplomatic and economic ally China, and improving strained relations with Tokyo.
Earlier this month, the leaders of South Korea, China and Japan held their first summit for more than three years in Seoul.
Although the focus was on trade and other economic issues, the three declared their “firm opposition” to the development of nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula.
North Korea is already under a raft of UN sanctions imposed after its three nuclear tests in 2006, 2009 and 2013.
It has also come under increasing pressure on the human rights front, following a report published last year by a UN commission that concluded North Korea was committing human rights violations “without parallel in the contemporary world”.
A UN General Assembly committee on Thursday condemned those “gross” violations in North Korea, in a resolution adopted by a record majority.
The resolution, which will go to the full General Assembly for a vote next month, encourages the Security Council to consider referring Pyongyang to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.
Such a move would likely be blocked by China, which has veto power in the council.
– Summit hopes –
Last week, South Korean President Park Geun-Hye had reiterated her willingness to hold face-to-face talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un — but only if Pyongyang showed some commitment to abandoning its nuclear weapons programme.
“There is no reason not to hold an inter-Korean summit if a breakthrough comes in solving the North Korean nuclear issue,” Park said.
“But it will be possible only when the North comes forward for a proactive and sincere dialogue,” she added.
The two Koreas have held two summits in the past, one in 2000 and the second in 2007.
The United Nations is also understood to be in discussions with North Korea over a visit by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon — possibly before the end of the year.
Ban had been scheduled to visit in May this year, but Pyongyang withdrew the invitation at the last minute after he criticised a recent North Korean missile test.