North, South Korea hold rare high-level talks

SEOUL - North and South Korean officials sat down for their highest level talks for years Wednesday, marking a potential upswing in cooperation ahead of a reunion for families divided by the Korean War.

The discussions in the border truce village of Panmunjom had no fixed agenda, but were to cover a range of "major" issues, including the planned February 20-25 reunion event, the South's Unification Ministry said.

The South's delegation was led by top National Security Council official Kim Kyou-Hyun, who said Seoul's focus was on ensuring the meeting of separated families goes ahead as scheduled.

The North side is likely to make another push for South Korea to cancel annual military exercises with the United States, which are scheduled to begin February 24.

Kim said he was entering the talks, which kicked off at 10:00am (0100 GMT), with "an open attitude to explore the chance of opening a new chapter on the Korean peninsula".

He did not mention whether North Korea's nuclear programme would be discussed.

It was the first such high-level sit-down between the two sides since 2007, and came a day before US Secretary of State John Kerry's arrival in Seoul for a brief visit focused on North Korea.

The North wants to resume talks with Seoul and Washington on nuclear matters, but both have insisted that Pyongyang must first make a tangible commitment to abandoning nuclear weapons.

According to Seoul, the Panmunjom meet was requested by Pyongyang, whose delegation was headed by Wong Ton-Yong - deputy head of a ruling party organisation that handles inter-Korean ties.

North Korea state media made no mention of the talks, which were held on the South side of the border village where the armistice ending the 1950-53 Korean conflict 60 years ago was signed.

North looking for concessions?

Kim Yong-Hyun, a North Korean expert at Dongguk University in Seoul, said Pyongyang was keen to make a public display of its diplomatic credentials.

"It wants to demonstrate a willingness to improve ties with the South in order to obtain concessions from Seoul and others," said Kim, who warned it was premature to expect any major breakthrough.

The North is also likely to push for a resumption of regular South Korea tours to its Mount Kumgang resort.

The South suspended the tours after a tourist was shot and killed by North Korean soldiers in 2008, and Pyongyang is keen to see the return of what was a lucrative source of hard currency.

The success of the upcoming family reunion event would be key to Seoul considering starting up the tours again.

"If the first step goes well, it can move to the next level, expanding the scope of inter-Korean cooperation at a faster speed," the South's Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-Jae said on Tuesday.

There are fears the North might cancel the reunion event in protest at South Korea and the United States pushing ahead with their joint military exercises.

Pyongyang views the drills as rehearsals for invasion and has repeatedly demanded Seoul call them off, warning at one point of an "unimaginable holocaust" if they went ahead.

Last year's exercises fuelled an unusually sharp and protracted surge in military tensions, with Pyongyang threatening a pre-emptive nuclear strike, and nuclear-capable US stealth bombers making dummy runs over the Korean peninsula.

Seoul and Washington have made it clear there is no question of this year's drills being cancelled, but US officials have indicated they will be toned down, with no aircraft carrier and no strategic bombers.

Because the Korean War ended with a ceasefire rather than a peace treaty, North and South Korea technically remain at war.

President Park Geun-Hye, who came to office a year ago, had promised greater engagement with Pyongyang and held out the possibility of a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un.

Substantive dialogue between the two sides mostly dried up under Park's presidential predecessor, Lee Myung-Bak, who took a tough line with Pyongyang.