SEOUL, South Korea – North and South Korea on Friday held high-level talks at a North Korean border town, a small step meant to improve ties battered by a military standoff in August and decades of acrimony and bloodshed.
No major breakthrough was expected at the meeting of vice-ministerial officials in Kaesong, but analysts see even these relatively low-level talks as meaningful because they seek to carry out previously agreed reconciliation efforts — something the rivals have often failed to do in the past.
South Korean officials want to discuss more reunions between aging family members separated by the 1950-53 Korean War. Analysts have said cash-strapped North Korea might seek the South's commitment to restart joint tours to its scenic Diamond Mountain resort, which were suspended by Seoul in 2008 following the shooting death of a South Korean tourist there by a North Korean soldier.
"There are a lot of issues to discuss between the South and North. (We) will do our best to resolve them one at a time, step by step," said Hwang Boogi, South Korea's vice minister of unification and the head negotiator for the talks, before leaving for Kaesong.
Expectations for Friday's meeting dropped last month when both sides in preparatory negotiations settled for a meeting at the vice-ministerial level. This likely ruled out discussions on more important issues.
Still, any negotiations between the rivals, which are separated by the world's most heavily armed border, should improve upon the situation in August when they threatened each other with war over land mine explosions that maimed two South Korean soldiers.
The standoff eased after marathon talks and an agreement on efforts to reduce animosity. Those included a resumption of talks between senior officials and a new round of reunions for war-separated families, which were held in October.
Analysts say quick improvements in ties are unlikely because the rivals remain far apart on major issues, such as Pyongyang's nuclear weapons ambitions and the broad economic sanctions the South has imposed on the North since 2010, when Seoul blamed a North Korean torpedo for a warship sinking that killed 46 South Koreans.
Improving relations with Seoul is a priority for young North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who likely wants tangible diplomatic and economic achievements before a convention of the ruling Workers' Party in May, said Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea expert at Seoul's Dongguk University.
It is widely expected that Kim will use the congress, the party's first since 1980, to announce major state polices and shake up the country's political elite to further consolidate his power.
The Korean Peninsula remains technically at war, because the Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty.