Rival Koreas hold high-level talks to defuse war fears
South Korea and North Korea were holding their first highlevel talks in nearly a year at a border village on Saturday to defuse mounting tensions that have pushed the rivals to the brink of a possible military confrontation.
The closed- door meeting at Panmunjom, where the armistice ending fighting in the Korean War was agreed to in 1953, began Saturday evening, shortly after a deadline set by North Korea for the South to dismantle loudspeakers broadcasting anti-North Korean propaganda at their border, said an official from South Korea’s Unification Ministry. North Korea had declared that its front-line troops were in full war readiness and prepared to go to battle if Seoul did not back down.
At the meeting, South Korea’s presidential national security director, Kim Kwan-jin, and Unification Minister Hong Yong-pyo sat down with Hwang Pyong So, the top political officer for the Korean People’s Army, and Kim Yang Gon, a senior North Korean official responsible for South Korean affairs.
Hwang is considered by outside analysts to be North Korea’s second most important official after supreme leader Kim Jong Un.
The meeting came as a series of incidents raised fears that the conflict could spiral out of control, starting with a land mine attack, allegedly by the North, that maimed two South Korean soldiers and the South’s resumption of anti-Pyongyang propaganda broadcasts.
An official from South Korea’s Defense Ministry, who didn’t want to be named because of office rules, said that the South would continue with the antiPyongyang broadcasts during the meeting and would make a decision on whether to halt them depending on the result of the talks.
While the meeting offered a way for the rivals to avoid a collision for now, analysts in Seoul wondered whether the countries were standing too far apart to expect a quick agreement that could defuse the conflict.
“South Korea has openly vowed to cut off the vicious cycle of North Korean provocations, so it can’t manage to walk off with a weak settlement,” said Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea expert at Dongguk University in Seoul. “The South will also likely demand the North to take responsibility for the land mine attack and apologize, and there isn’t much reason to think that Pyongyang would accept that.” Koh, however, said that Saturday’s meeting might open the door to more meetings between the rivals to discuss a variety of issues.
South Korea had been using 11 loudspeaker systems along the border for the broadcasts, which included the latest news around the Korean Peninsula and the world, South Korean popular music and programs praising the South’s democracy and economic affluence over the North’s oppressive government, a senior military official said at a news conference, on condition of anonymity.
Each loudspeaker system has broadcast for more than 10 hours a day in three or four different time slots that were frequently changed for unpredictability, the official said. If North Korea attacks the loudspeakers, the South is ready to strike back at the North Korean units responsible for such attacks, he said.
Authoritarian North Korea, which has also restarted its own propaganda broadcasts, is extremely sensitive to any criticism of its government. Analysts in Seoul also believe the North fears that the South’s broadcasts could demoralize its front-line troops and inspire them to defect.
The high-level meeting was first proposed by Pyongyang on Friday afternoon. The rival countries reached an agreement for the meeting Saturday morning after the North accepted the South’s demand that Hwang be present at the meeting, South Korea’s presidential office said.
Hwang and Kim Yang Gon visited South Korea in October last year during the Asian Games in Incheon, but their meeting with Kim, the South’s national security director, and then- Unification Ministry Ryoo Kihl-jae failed to improve ties between the countries.
In this photo provided by the South Korean Unification Ministry, South Korean Unification Minister Hong Yong-pyo, left, and National Security Director, Kim Kwan-jin, second from left, meet with Kim Yang Gon, right, a senior North Korean official responsible for South Korean affairs, and Hwang Pyong So, North Korea’ top political officer for the Korean People’s Army, at the border village of Panmunjom in Paju, South Korea, Saturday, Aug. 22.