North, South Korea resume rare, high-level talks

SEOUL - The rival Koreas resumed rare, high-level talks Friday, seeking a compromise to allow a planned reunion for divided families to go ahead despite the North's objection to overlapping South Korea-US military drills.

The talks have no fixed agenda, but the first round on Wednesday that ended without any tangible progress made the immediate focus of concern for both sides very clear.

South Korea wants the North to guarantee that the planned reunion for relatives divided by the 1950-53 Korean War will take place as scheduled at the North's Mount Kumgang resort from February 20-25.

North Korea is insisting that the South must postpone the February 24 start of its annual military drills with the United States until after the reunion is over.

This was the crux of the issue being thrashed out Friday in the border truce village of Panmunjom, although some observers argue that the most important factor is the willingness of both sides to engage at all.

There are the highest level North-South talks for seven years and the first substantive follow-up to statements by the leaders of both countries - South Korean President Park Geun-Hye and the North's Kim Jong-Un - professing a desire for improved inter-Korean ties.

A compromise on the overlapping family reunions and military drills could signal a willingness to explore other, far more contentious issues, according to Robert Carlin, a former US State Department official and contributor to the closely-followed North Korea-dedicated website, 38 North.

"When they want to be - which unfortunately is not all that often - both sides are capable of imaginative solutions to what, at first, look to be intractable problems," Carlin said in post on the website.

There were already signs of a shift in position at Wednesday's first round talks, with the North's demand that the annual South Korea-US exercises be postponed.

North Korea routinely condemns the drills as provocative rehearsals for war, and its previous position has always been to demand their permanent cancellation.

By calling for this year's exercises to be delayed, Pyongyang seemed to indicate that it could live with them actually going ahead - if Seoul and Washington conceded on the scheduling.

"Depending on whether both sides are looking for progress or want to dig in their heels, this would seem to have opened the way to explore various compromises," Carlin said.

For the moment, Seoul's response has been an unequivocal rejection of any change to the military drills, on the principle that there can be no linkage between them and an essentially humanitarian issue like the family reunions.

That position was echoed on Thursday by visiting US Secretary of State John Kerry, who urged Pyongyang to act with "human decency" and not try and use "one (issue) as an excuse to somehow condition the other".

Kerry left for China on Friday morning following his brief stop in Seoul, where he discussed efforts to curb North Korea's nuclear weapons programme with Park and other officials.

While welcoming the North-South talks in Panmunjom, Kerry stressed that Washington was not ready to accede to Pyongyang's demand that it get involved in direct negotiations.

"We've been through that exercise previously, we want to know that this is real," he said, adding North Korea had to take "meaningful action" towards denuclearisation before a dialogue could begin.

"The US will not accept talks for the sake of talks," he said.

North Korea and its main ally China have both urged a resumption of stalled six-party negotiations on the North's nuclear programme, but South Korea and the US have resisted.

During his visit to China, Kerry indicated that he would push Beijing to do more to rein in Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions.

"China has a unique and critical role it can play... and no country has a greater potential to influence North Korea," he said, praising moves by Beijing last year to help reduce tensions after Pyongyang carried out its third nuclear test.

An analysis of new satellite images posted on the 38 North website Friday showed stepped up excavation activity at the North's main nuclear test site, although there were no signs that any further test was imminent.