North and South Korea hold rare high-level talks


The talks are taking place ahead of South Korea's annual military exercises with the US, as Lucy Williamson reports

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North and South Korea have held their highest level talks in years, exploring ways to improve their tense relations.

Two rounds of meetings - requested by Pyongyang - took place at the border village of Panmunjom. More may follow.

There has been no word on how the talks went. Family reunions planned for this month were expected to be discussed, but the agenda was left open.

Pyongyang has threatened to cancel the reunions because of annual South Korea-US military exercises due in February.

China, Pyongyang's main ally, welcomed the talks, the highest-level meeting with the North and South have held since 2007.

The BBC's Lucy Williamson, who was at the border area, says the delegations appeared to greet each other cordially.

The two sides met for 90 minutes in the morning at South Korea's side of Panmunjom and then reconvened for three hours in the afternoon, after which the two chief delegates held one-to-one discussions.


South Korean officials say they were pleasantly surprised when North Korea's invitation arrived. It is the first time in more than six years, they say, that a meeting at this level has taken place. A similar attempt last year fell victim to a spat over protocol, but this time both sides appear more willing to talk.

The meeting comes after weeks of pointed diplomatic overtures by Pyongyang that have raised hopes in some quarters that the mood on the peninsula is changing.

But others point out that previous North Korean charm offensives have been followed by renewed confrontation, and that Pyongyang's new cordiality has come with a warning: that the joint military exercises scheduled to take place this month between the US and South Korea are incompatible with friendlier inter-Korean ties.

'Open mind'

South Korea's Deputy National Security Adviser Kim Kyou-hyun is leading Seoul's delegation at the Panmunjom talks.

Ahead of the meeting, Mr Kim said: "This is an opportunity to open a new era of the Korean peninsula.

"I would like to attend the meeting with 'open attitude and mind' to study the opportunity.

"We will make an effort to proceed with the separated families reunion event as agreed," he added.

North Korea's delegation is being headed by Won Tong-yon, a senior official specialising in inter-Korean ties, South Korean officials said.

In a news conference in Geneva on Tuesday, North Korea's ambassador to the UN, So Se-pyong, spoke of the need to terminate all hostile military actions, which he described as the main obstacles to peace.

He called for the US and South Korea to suspend their planned military exercises, describing them as "of a sinister and dangerous nature".

The two Koreas are due to hold reunions of families, divided by the partitioning of the Korean Peninsula at the end of the 1950-53 Korean War, for five days from 20 February.

The last such reunions took place in 2010. But these reunions coincide with the start of the US-South Korea joint military drills - annual exercises that anger North Korea.

The drills last year led to a prolonged rise in tensions, as North Korea threatened pre-emptive nuclear strikes and withdrew its workers from a joint industrial zone.

Many in South Korea see Pyongyang's reaction as a test of its new approach, the BBC's Lucy Williamson in Seoul reports.

Last week Pyongyang threatened to cancel the family reunions, warning that "dialogue and exercises of war" could not go hand-in-hand.

More than the talks, the exercises are for many people the real test of whether Pyongyang's charm offensive is a sign of change, or simply a prelude to more confrontation, our correspondent says.


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