SEOUL, South Korea – The highest-level talks between the rival Koreas in years ended late Wednesday with little progress because of North Korea's call for the delay of annual military drills between Seoul and Washington set for later this month, officials said.
Seoul officials said the meeting was requested by North Korea, which has launched a recent charm offensive after raising tensions last spring with repeated threats to fire nuclear-tipped missiles against Seoul and Washington. Later this month, the two Koreas are to hold reunions of families separated since the 1950-53 Korean War. It would be the first such reunions in more than three years.
During Wednesday's meeting, South Korea stressed to North Korea that the smooth arrangement of the scheduled family reunions is a first step toward improving inter-Korean ties, according to a statement issued early Thursday by the South's Unification Ministry, which is responsible for ties with North Korea.
North Korea also demanded South Korea delay the annual military drills set to begin Feb. 24 with the United States until the end of the family reunions, which are scheduled to start Feb. 20 and end five days later, the statement said. South Korea refused, saying it cannot link a purely humanitarian matter to a military issue. The military drills, which Pyongyang claims are preparations for an invasion but the allies call routine, are to end in mid-April.
North Korea also took issue with South Korean media reports critical of its leaders and political system and insisted South Korea control its media, the statement said. South Korea rejected the North's demands.
The statement said the two Koreas agreed to continue to discuss the matters, but didn't say when the next meeting would be held.
North Korea canceled planned reunions at the last minute in September, and has recently threatened to scrap this month's reunions because of the upcoming U.S.-South Korean military drills. But outside analysts say it's unlikely that North Korea will halt the reunions this time because it needs improved ties with South Korea to help attract foreign investment and aid.
South Korea has so far dismissed North Korea's recent proposals for a series of measures that Pyongyang says are needed to ease tensions, saying the North must first take nuclear disarmament steps and show how sincere it is about its stated desire to improve ties.
Wariness in Seoul is still high because of a weeks-long barrage of threats and provocations last spring from Pyongyang after international condemnation of its third nuclear test. Pyongyang, which has repeatedly vowed to expand its nuclear arsenal, is trying to build nuclear-armed missiles that can reach the continental U.S., but most experts say the country has yet to master the technology needed to mount an atomic bomb on a missile.
Last month, the top U.S. intelligence official said that North Korea has expanded the size of its uranium enrichment facility at its main nuclear complex and restarted a reactor that was used for plutonium production before it was shut down in 2007.
The chief South Korean delegate at the meeting, Kim Kyou-hyun, is a vice-ministerial-level national security official with the presidential Blue House. The North Korean delegation was headed by senior ruling Workers' Party official Won Tong Yon, a veteran official specializing in ties with Seoul. North Korea demanded South Korea send a senior Blue House official to the meeting, according to Seoul's Unification Ministry.
The meeting was the highest between the Koreas in years. They held a series of high-level meetings in 2007, including a second summit of their leaders, according to the Unification Ministry.
Nuclear envoys met in 2011 on the sidelines of a regional security forum in Indonesia. Since then, ties have become increasingly bad. Last June, plans to hold a high-level meeting fell apart because of a protocol dispute over who would represent each side.
Yoo Ho-yeol, a professor at Korea University in South Korea, said the fact that North Korea proposed the meeting and is sending an important official specializing in inter-Korean ties is a sign it wants to showcase its desire for better ties in a "more explicit manner."
The Korean Peninsula technically remains in a state of war because the Korean War ended with a cease-fire, not a peace treaty.