North and South Korea Agree Military Talks to Defuse Tensions

Unification Minister and chief delegate Cho Myoung-gyon (R) shakes hands with North Korea's chief delegate Ri Son-gwon (L) after their meeting in the truce village of Panminjom, in Paju, South Korea, 09 January 2018. (Photo by KOREA POOL/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

North and South Korea have agreed to hold military talks to defuse border tension, after their first high-level meeting in two years. The North will also send a delegation to the 2018 Winter Olympic Games taking place in Pyeongchang in February. The tension-relieving talks come after Pyongyang’s leader Kim Jong-un called for constructive relations with the South, and in Seoul, President Moon Jae-in agreed to postpone military exercises with the US.

In a joint statement after the 11-hour talks, the North pledged to send a large delegation to next month’s Winter Olympics in the South but made a “strong complaint” after Seoul proposed talks to denuclearize the Korean peninsula.

The North also agreed to send a National Olympic Committee delegation, athletes, cheerleaders, art performers, spectators, a taekwondo demonstration team and media to the games, while the South would provide the necessary amenities and facilities. The statement also referred to exchanges in other, unspecified areas and other high-level talks to improve relations, the South’s Yonhap news agency reports.

The North cut communications in February 2016, following the South’s decision to shut down a jointly run industrial park in the North. North Korea also responded “positively” to the South’s proposal for athletes from both sides to march together at the Games’ opening ceremony and other joint activities during the Winter Olympics, Seoul said.

The two sides will have to work out details such as the size of the North Korean delegation, which is expected to arrive over the border by boat, as the land border is impossible to cross and there are no airlines between the two countries split at the 38th parallel. South Korea has unilaterally banned several North Korean officials from an entry in response to Pyongyang’s ramped-up missile and nuclear tests, held despite international pressure.

Seoul asked its neighbor to halt hostile acts that stoke tension on the peninsula, and in return, the North agreed that peace should be guaranteed in the region, the South’s unification ministry said in a separate statement.

The North Korean delegation traveled to the border in a motorcade and then walked across the military demarcation line into the southern side of the truce village of Panmunjom at around 9.30 in the morning, according to the Guardian. The village straddles the demilitarised zone (DMZ), the heavily armed border that has separated the two Koreas for more than six decades.

Five senior officials on each side attended and the leaders of both were said to have watched the talks via a CCTV feed. As the two sides sat down for their first face-to-face talks since December 2015, North Korean media hit back at Donald Trump’s claim that his tough stance against Pyongyang had facilitated the Olympic negotiations.

The Rodong Sinmun, the newspaper of the ruling Workers’ party, said Trump’s claim that sanctions and pressure on the regime had brought him “diplomatic success” during his first year in the White House was “ridiculous sophism”.

The United States, which has 28,500 troops stationed in South Korea as a legacy of the 1950-1953 Korean War, initially responded coolly to the idea of inter-Korean meetings, but Trump later called them “a good thing”. He has said he would like to see talks go beyond the Olympics. “At the appropriate time, we’ll get involved,” he said.

On Tuesday, China’s foreign ministry said it was happy to see talks between North and South Korea and welcomed all positive steps. Russia echoed the sentiment, with a Kremlin spokesman saying, “This is exactly the kind of dialogue that we said was necessary.”

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