SEOUL, South Korea — The rival Koreas agreed today to hold senior-level talks this week in Seoul, a breakthrough of sorts after North Korea's recent threats of nuclear war and the South's vows of counterstrikes.
The two-day meeting starting Wednesday will focus on stalled cooperation projects, including the resumption of operations at a jointly run factory park near the border in North Korea. It was the last remaining symbol of inter-Korean rapprochement until Pyongyang shut the border and pulled out its workers this spring during a period of heightened tensions that followed the North's nuclear test in February.
The details were ironed out in a nearly 17-hour negotiating session by lower-level officials. It was the first such meeting of its kind on the Korean peninsula in more than two years and took place at the village of Panmunjom on their heavily armed border, where the armistice ending the three-year Korean War was signed 60 years ago next month. That truce has never been replaced with a peace treaty, leaving the peninsula technically at war.
Dialogue at any level marks an improvement in the countries' abysmal relations. The last several years have seen North Korean nuclear tests, long-range rocket launches and attacks blamed on the North that killed 50 South Koreans in 2010.
The agreement to hold the talks was announced in a statement today by South Korea's Unification Ministry. North Korea's official news agency, KCNA, also reported the agreement.
The meeting Wednesday will also include discussions on resuming South Korean tours to a North Korean mountain resort, the reunion of separated families and other humanitarian issues, officials said. The issue most crucial to Washington, however — a push to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons — isn't set to be discussed.
While there was broad agreement, sticking points arose over the delegation heads and the agenda, Seoul's Unification Ministry said in a statement. Seoul will send its top official for inter-Korean affairs while Pyongyang said it would send a senior-level government official, without elaborating.
North Korea said the two sides would additionally discuss how to jointly commemorate past inter-Korean statements, including one settled during a landmark 2000 summit between the countries' leaders; civilian exchanges and other joint collaboration matters, according to the South Korean ministry's statement .
While it wasn't immediately clear who'll lead the North Korea side, a minister-level summit between the Koreas has not happened since 2007.
Analysts express wariness about North Korea's intentions, with some seeing the interest in dialogue as part of a pattern where Pyongyang follows aggressive rhetoric and provocations with diplomatic efforts to trade an easing of tension for outside concessions.
Pyongyang is trying to improve ties with Seoul because it wants dialogue with the United States, which could give the North aid, ease international sanctions and improve its economy in return for concessions, said Kim Yong Hyun, a professor of North Korea studies at Dongguk University in Seoul.
Nuclear matters won't be on the table, Kim said, because Pyongyang wants issues related to its pursuit of atomic weapons resolved through talks with Washington or in broader, now-stalled international disarmament negotiations.
After U.N. sanctions were strengthened following North Korea's third nuclear test in February, Pyongyang threatened nuclear war and missile strikes against Seoul and Washington, pulled its workers from the jointly run factory park at the North Korean border town of Kaesong, and vowed to ramp up production of nuclear bomb fuel. Seoul withdrew its last personnel from Kaesong in May.
The summit marks a political and diplomatic victory for South Korean President Park Geun Hye, who took office in February and has maintained through the heightened tensions a policy that combines vows of strong counter-action to any North Korea provocation with efforts to build trust and re-establish dialogue.
Representatives of the Koreas met on the peninsula in February 2011 and their nuclear envoys met in Beijing later that year, but government officials from both sides have not met since.
Sunday's meeting follows a summit by President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping in California in which the White House said "quite a bit of alignment" was found on North Korea, including an agreement that Pyongyang has to abandon its nuclear weapons aspirations.
China provides a lifeline for a North Korea struggling with energy and other economic needs, and views stability in Pyongyang as crucial for its own economy and border security. But after Pyongyang's nuclear test in February, China tightened its cross-border trade inspections and banned its state banks from dealing with North Korea's Foreign Trade Bank.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un last month sent to China his special envoy, who reportedly told Xi that Pyongyang was willing to return to dialogue.