SEOUL, South Korea – North and South Korea on Wednesday began their first talks in nearly two years aimed at reuniting families divided during the Korean War.
The Koreas used to regularly hold talks brokered by the Red Cross to discuss family reunions and other humanitarian issues but no meetings have taken place since 2007. The North called off inter-Korean talks in anger last year after the inauguration of South Korea's conservative president who has taken a hard-line stance toward the communist country.
South Korea's delegation traveled by bus to the three-day talks at the North's Diamond Mountain resort and the sides convened an opening session Wednesday afternoon, Seoul's Unification Ministry said.
North Korea's recent attempts to reach out to South Korea and the U.S. follows provocations earlier this year, including its second nuclear test in May and a barrage of ballistic missile launches.
Earlier this month, the North freed two American journalists after former President Bill Clinton went to Pyongyang. They has been sentenced to 12 years of hard labor for illegally entering the country. North Korea has also released a South Korean worker, agreed to lift restrictions on border crossings with the South, and pledged to resume suspended inter-Korean projects.
Last week, a North Korean delegation traveled to Seoul to mourn the death of former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung.
On Tuesday, South Korean media reported that the communist nation had invited two top U.S. envoys to visit Pyongyang for the first nuclear talks since President Barack Obama took office, and that the U.S. government was strongly considering sending them next month.
However, U.S. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said neither special envoy Stephen Bosworth nor nuclear negotiator Sung Kim had immediate plans to go.
North Korea has long sought direct negotiations with Washington, hoping to boost its international profile.
The U.S. has said it is willing to talk bilaterally, but only within the framework of six-nation disarmament talks involving the two Koreas, the U.S., China, Russia and Japan.
"Bilateral contacts and discussions can be part of that framework, but the six-party talks and multilateral approach remain central to the way we will proceed," U.S. envoy Philip Goldberg told reporters in Tokyo on Wednesday, part of his Asian tour to seek support for enforcing U.N. sanctions on Pyongyang for its May 25 nuclear test.
The North insisted it would not return to multilateral talks during meetings with China's nuclear envoy in Pyongyang last week, Yonhap news agency reported, citing unidentified South Korean officials.
The last family reunion talks between the two Koreas were held in November 2007. Bilateral relations deteriorated with the inauguration of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak early last year. Lee infuriated North Korea by imposing tough policies such as linking aid to the North's nuclear disarmament, prompting it to cut off all reconciliation talks and most of their joint projects.
"Since it is a meeting being held after a year and nine months, the main topic is the dispersed family issue," chief South Korean delegate Kim Young-chol told reporters as he left for the talks.
Millions of families were separated following the division of the Korean peninsula in 1945 and the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended with a cease-fire, not a peace treaty, leaving the two countries technically at war.
More than 16,000 Koreans have met relatives in temporary reunions held under South Korea's two previous liberal presidents.
There are no mail, telephone or e-mail exchanges between ordinary citizens across the Korean border.
Meanwhile, Hyundai Asan, the South Korean company whose worker was released by North Korea earlier this month, said Wednesday that it paid the North $15,757 for the worker's hotel bill during his more than four months in detention.
North Korea has a record of demanding money when freeing foreigners.