North, South Korea hold rare talks

SEOUL - North and South Korean officials sat down Thursday for rare talks aimed at setting up a sustainable high-level dialogue that has constantly eluded the two rivals.

The meeting at the border truce village of Panmunjom began shortly before 1pm (0400 GMT) and marked the first inter-governmental interaction since August when the two sides met to defuse a crisis that had pushed them to the brink of an armed conflict.

That meeting ended with a joint agreement that included a commitment to resume high-level talks, although no precise timeline was given.

Although any dialogue between the two Koreas is generally welcomed as a step in the right direction, precedent offers little hope of a successful outcome.

A similar effort back in June 2013 saw both sides agree to hold what would have been the first high-level dialogue for six years - only for Pyongyang to cancel a day before the scheduled meeting.

In the end, it was a matter of protocol - the North felt insulted by the South's nomination of a vice minister as its chief delegate - that smothered the initiative before it had even drawn breath.

Thursday's talks in Panmunjom will try to avoid a repetition of that failure by thrashing out an agenda, a venue and such protocol issues as who should attend the full-fledged dialogue.

"We will do our best," Kim Ki-Woong, the head of the South Korean Unification Ministry's special office for inter-Korean dialogue, said before leaving Seoul for Panmunjom.

The start of the talks was delayed by several hours due to a problem with the communication links that allow senior officials in Seoul and Pyongyang to monitor proceedings.

After an initial round lasting about 90 minutes, both sides took a break to confer with their respective capitals, a Unification Ministry official said.

"The mood was sincere, but there were differences," he acknowledged.

Likely topics for the eventual agenda include South Korea's desire for regular reunions for families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War that cemented the division of the Korean peninsula.

North Korea, meanwhile, will want to discuss the resumption of South Korean tour groups to its scenic Mount Kumgang resort.

The tours, a source of badly needed hard currency for the cash-strapped North, were suspended by the South in 2008 after a female tourist was shot dead by a North Korean guard.

"The overall atmosphere for a successful conclusion of these talks is really not that favourable," said Cheong Seong-Chang, an analyst with the Sejong Institute think tank in Seoul.

"The two sides always find it hard to agree on the ranks of chief delegates to high-level talks, and there are a number of issues causing friction in cross-border ties at the moment," Cheong said.

He cited Pyongyang's irritation with recent South Korean military exercises and Seoul's participation in international moves to censure the North for human rights violations.

Thursday's talks come amid diplomatic shifts in the Northeast Asia region that have left North Korea looking more isolated than ever, with Seoul moving closer to Pyongyang's main diplomatic and economic ally China, and improving strained relations with Tokyo.

Earlier this month, the leaders of South Korea, China and Japan held their first summit for more than three years in Seoul.

Although the focus was on trade and other economic issues, the three declared their "firm opposition" to the development of nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula.

North Korea is already under a raft of UN sanctions imposed after its three nuclear tests in 2006, 2009 and 2013.

South Korean President Park Geun-Hye recently reiterated her willingness to hold face-to-face talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un - but only if Pyongyang showed some commitment to abandoning its nuclear weapons programme.

The two Koreas have held two summits in the past, one in 2000 and the second in 2007.

The United Nations is also understood to be in discussions with North Korea over a visit by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon - possibly before the end of the year.

Ban had been scheduled to visit in May this year, but Pyongyang withdrew the invitation at the last minute after he criticised a recent North Korean missile test.