SEOUL, South Korea » Military officers from North and South Korea held talks inside the heavily guarded Demilitarized Zone on Tuesday in the rivals’ first official dialogue since the North’s deadly artillery barrage of a South Korean island in November.
Tensions on the divided peninsula rose sharply following the attack, which killed four people eight months after the sinking of a South Korean warship killed 46 sailors. The South has blamed a North Korean torpedo attack, but Pyongyang has steadfastly denied involvement in the sinking.
Colonels from the two Koreas met Tuesday in the border village of Panmunjom to set a date and work out logistics for higher-level defense talks aimed at discussing the two attacks last year, according to South Korea’s Defense Ministry.
"It’s not that cold today and I think today’s talks will go well," Col. Moon Sang-kyun, the chief South Korean delegate, said during a meeting with Unification Ministry officials in Seoul, ahead of his departure to the border.
If officers are able to agree on a meeting of defense chiefs, it would be the first such high-level defense meeting between the Koreas in more than three years.
Tuesday’s talks were taking place at a South Korean-controlled conference room at Panmunjom, a cluster of blue huts inside the heavily fortified, 154-mile-long (248-kilometer) Demilitarized Zone. Uniformed North Korean soldiers walked single file to the conference room as South Korean military police stood by.
"Can (the talks) go well today?" Moon asked his North Korean counterpart Ri Son Kwon as they exchanged handshakes before the meeting, according to footage provided by the state-run Defense Media Agency.
Ri replied: "Yes, they will go well."
No journalists were allowed to cover the meeting, instead documented by two Defense Media Agency staff: a photographer and cameraman.
The talks were arranged as North Korea pushes for dialogue after weeks of threatening war. South Korean officials have said the North must take responsibility for the two attacks and change its pattern of raising tensions through provocation, then negotiating to win aid.
"The fact the two Koreas are meeting in the aftermath of continued military tensions means that hostility on the Korean peninsula could be reduced," said Kim Yong-hyun, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Dongguk University.
Pyongyang wants to return to stalled six-nation talks on ending its nuclear weapons program in return for economic aid and other incentives. But South Korea and the U.S. say the North must first exhibit sincerity toward its nuclear disarmament before the talks can resume.
The North’s nuclear capability took renewed urgency in November when a visiting American scientist was shown a uranium enrichment facility that could give North Korea a second way to make atomic bombs. South Korea says that violates a past six-nation deal and U.N. resolutions.
A U.N. Security Council committee on international sanctions on North Korea is expected to report to the council about its committee activities later this month.
"We are paying attention to how the uranium enrichment program will be handled" during that meeting, South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman Kim Young-sun told reporters Monday.
The two Koreas technically remain in a state of war because the 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty.
In Seoul, a U.S. envoy on human rights in North Korea met South Korean officials Tuesday in part of bilateral efforts to coordinate their policies on North Korea. "We’ve had very good, very serious, very thoughtful discussions," Robert King told reporters in Seoul, after a meeting with South Korea’s top nuclear envoy, Wi Sung-lac.