High-level talks between North and South Korea being held today at the border truce village of Panmunjom could turn out to be a watershed in inter-Korean relations. First of all, the talks are being held just ahead of reunions of families separated during the Korean War, which are scheduled for Feb. 20-25. The talks, led by Won Tong-yon, a senior official in the Workers Party’s United Front Department, and Kim Kyu-hyun, a senior Cheong Wa Dae official, mark the first high-level contact since the launch of the Park Geun-hye administration.
If they end on a sour note, the scheduled family reunions could be at risk and make it harder for the two sides to sit face to face again for some time.
North Korea proposed the latest talks and South Korea accepted. In June last year, the North proposed ministerial talks in Seoul but then scuttled the meeting, blaming the South for not sending a higher-ranking official. At the time, the North Korean delegate was a director at the secretariat of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland, while the South’s delegate was a vice minister at the Unification Ministry, whose rank was by no means any lower. This suggests the North had no real interest in talks but just wanted to pacify China by seeming to agree to dialogue following its third nuclear test in February 2013.
A Unification Ministry official said there is "no set agenda" for the talks, but "comprehensive discussions" will take place on major issues. North Korea has recently objected to joint South Korea-U.S. military exercises starting Feb. 24 and demanded that Seoul choose between the drills or the family reunions. The North may continue to ramp up such pressure during the talks.
But the family reunions are a purely humanitarian matter that should not be associated with political issues, and demanding an end to the military drills is tantamount to expecting Seoul to give up protecting national security. North Korea would be making a serious mistake if it thinks it can gain anything by continuing this kind of pressure.
The government needs to stay firm on its principles but take a flexible approach on issues that could lead to continued contact between the two sides. Package tours to the North's scenic Mt. Kumgang region could resume any time as long as Pyongyang apologizes for the shooting death of a South Korean tourist. It's been six years since the tourist was shot and killed and this matter needs to be resolved now.
If North Korea is genuinely interested in improving cross-border relations, this would not be such a tough thing to do. The latest high-level talks will serve as an opportunity to find out all about those olive branches North Korea has been offering.