SEOUL: South Korea and North Korea were holding their first high-level talks in nearly a year at a border village on Saturday to defuse mounting tensions that have pushed the rivals to the brink of a possible military confrontation.
The closed-door meeting at Panmunjom began early Saturday evening, shortly after a deadline set by North Korea for South Korea to dismantle loudspeakers broadcasting anti-North Korean propaganda at their border, said an official from South Korea’s Unification Ministry, who didn’t want to be named because of office rules.
North Korea had declared that its front-line troops were in full war readiness and prepared to go to battle if Seoul did not back down.
The ministry official did not give details on the meeting. The South Korean presidential office said earlier that the country’s national security director, Kim Kwan-jin, and Unification Minister Hong Yong-pyo would sit down with Hwang Pyong So, the top political officer for the Korean People’s Army, and Kim Yang Gon, a senior North Korean official responsible for South Korean affairs.
Hwang is considered by outside analysts to be North Korea’s second most important official after supreme leader Kim Jong Un.
The meeting came as a series of incidents raised fears that the conflict could spiral out of control, starting with a land mine attack, allegedly by the North that maimed two South Korean soldiers and the South’s resumption of anti-Pyongyang propaganda broadcasts.
An official from South Korea’s Defense Ministry, who didn’t want to be named because of office rules, said that the South would continue with the anti-Pyongyang broadcasts during the meeting and would make a decision on whether to halt them depending on the result of the talks.
While the meeting offered a way for the rivals to avoid a collision for now, analysts in Seoul wondered whether the countries were standing too far apart to expect a quick agreement that could defuse their conflict.
“South Korea has openly vowed to cut off the vicious cycle of North Korean provocations, so it can’t manage to walk off with a weak settlement,” said Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea expert at Dongguk University in Seoul.
“The South will also likely demand the North to take responsibility for the land mine attack and apologize, and there isn’t much reason to think that Pyongyang would accept that.”
Koh, however, said that Saturday’s meeting might open the door to more meetings between the countries to discuss a variety of issues.