North, South Korea agree to rare high-level talks

North, South Korea agree to rare high-level talks

Pyongyang’s apparently conciliatory steps coinicide with intelligence reports that regime is ready to conduct a fourth nuclear test

By Julian Ryall, Tokyo

10:06AM GMT 11 Feb 2014

North and South Korea have agreed to hold high-level talks at the border village of Panmunjom on Wednesday, the latest indication that Pyongyang is attempting to build bridges with Seoul.

Analysts point out, however, that both sides hold entrenched policy positions on inter-Korean relations and that dramatic detente is unlikely.

Representatives of the two governments are scheduled to meet in one of the blue huts that straddle the border between North and South at 10 am on Wednesday, an official of the South’s unification ministry told Yonhap News.

The talks were first proposed by North Korea on Sunday and are expected to focus on the upcoming reunions of families separated since the end of the Korean War in 1953. A group of South Korean officials are already in the North’s Mount Kumgang mountain resort preparing for the arrival of family members from the South for five days from February 20.

Despite threats from Pyongyang less than a year ago that it would turn Seoul into a “sea of fire” after the United Nations imposed new sanctions in the wake of North Korea’s third underground nuclear test, the regime of Kim Jong-un has made a series of conciliatory measures in recent weeks.

The South Korean official added that the discussions will touch on making the family reunions a regular occurrence.

“There have been contacts and secret talks before so these discussions are not unprecedented,” Daniel Pinkston, a North Korea analyst with The International Crisis Group in Seoul, told The Telegraph.

“My feeling is that the policy positions of both sides are pretty hardline and neither side’s interests have changed,” he added. “Unless there is a will to compromise and move towards a more cooperative posture, then I do not expect to see dramatic changes in the relationship.”

Pyongyang has already threatened to scrap the reunions if South Korea and the United States do not cancel the annual Foal Eagle joint military exercises, which are scheduled to start on March 24. Both Seoul and Washington have stated that the exercises will go ahead.

Pyongyang’s apparent charm offensive towards the South amid intelligence reports that North Korea is ready to conduct a fourth underground nuclear test, although there are no signs that such a test detonation is imminent.

Kim Kwan-jin, the South Korean defence minister, told a meeting of the National Assembly on Monday that preliminary steps for a test at the Punggye-ri site have been carried out, while similar early stage procedures for a missile launch have been taken at the North’s Tongchang-ri facility.