PAJU, South Korea – High-level officials from North and South Korea began talks at a border village Thursday to prepare for an April summit between their leaders amid a global diplomatic push to resolve the standoff over the North's nuclear program.
Officials plan to use the talks at the northern side of Panmunjom to determine the date and agenda of the meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in. The results of the closed-door talks weren't immediately clear.
Seoul's Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon, one of the three South Koreans participants, told reporters before their talks that setting up discussions between the leaders on ways to rid the North of its nuclear weapons would be a critical point. He said there could be several such preparatory meetings. The North's three delegates were led by Ri Son Gwon, chairman of a state agency that deals with inter-Korean affairs.
The South's delegation arrived in Panmunjom after their vehicles crossed the heavily guarded border near the southern city of Paju.
The talks follow a surprise meeting this week between Kim and Chinese President Xi Jinping, which appeared to be aimed at improving both countries' positions ahead of Kim's planned meetings with Moon and President Donald Trump.
In setting up separate talks with Beijing, Seoul, Washington, and potentially with Moscow and Tokyo, North Korea may be moving to disrupt any united front among its negotiating counterparts. By reintroducing China, which is the North's only major ally, as a major player, North Korea also gains leverage against South Korea and the United States, analysts say.
In his talks with Xi, Kim may have discussed economic cooperation with China or requested a softening of enforcement of sanctions over the North's nukes and missiles. North Korea also wants Beijing to resist tougher sanctions if the talks with Washington and Seoul fall apart and the North starts testing missiles again.
South Korea's presidential office says Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi will visit Seoul on Thursday and Friday to brief Moon and other officials on the results of the talks between Kim and Xi.
The leaders of the two Koreas have held talks only twice since the 1950-53 Korean War, in 2000 and 2007, under previous liberal governments in Seoul.
It's unclear whether the leaders' meetings between Seoul, Pyongyang and Washington, if they take place, could lead to any meaningful breakthrough.
The North's diplomatic outreach comes after an unusually provocative year where it conducted its most powerful nuclear test to date and three intercontinental ballistic missiles designed to target the U.S. mainland. The change in tactics could be an attempt to ease pressure from heavy sanctions and improve its economy.
Washington and Seoul have said Kim previously told South Korean envoys that he was willing to put his nukes up for negotiation in his talks with Trump. However, the North has yet to officially confirm its interest in a summit between Kim and Trump.
There's deep skepticism among some analysts that the North, after years of dogged weapons development, will commit to real denuclearization and then agree to a robust verification regime. North Korea over the past two decades has been repeatedly accused of using disarmament talks as a way to ease outside pressure and win badly needed aid, while all along secretly pushing ahead with its weapons development.
The Koreas agreed to a summit when Moon's envoys visited Kim in Pyongyang earlier this month. The meeting followed a sudden period of inter-Korean warmth over February's Winter Olympics in the South, where the North sent hundreds of officials, including Kim's sister who met with Moon to deliver his brother's desire for a summit.
Using a subsequent visit to the United States, Moon's envoys also brokered a potential meeting between Kim and Trump, who said he would meet the North Korean leader "by May."
Kim reported from Seoul.