North and South Korea in tension-easing talks this week

The two Koreas will hold their highest-level talks in years Wednesday in an effort to restore scrapped joint economic projects and ease animosity marked by recent threats of nuclear war.

Koreas making progress just by agreeing to meet, as big obstacles remain

North Korean soldiers are seen through a fence as they work on Hwanggumpyong Island, located in the middle of the Yalu River, near the North Korean town of Sinuiju, opposite the Chinese border city of Dandong, on Sunday. North and South Korea opened their first official talks in two years on Sunday at a border village without argument, the South said, building on an easing in tensions from nearly daily threats two months ago of impending nuclear war. (Jacky Chen/Reuters)

The two Koreas will hold their highest-level talks in years Wednesday in an effort to restore scrapped joint economic projects and ease animosity marked by recent threats of nuclear war.

That in itself is progress, though there are already hints that disputes in their bloody history could thwart efforts to better ties.

Still, just setting up the two-day meeting in Seoul, through a 17-hour negotiating session that ended early Monday, required the kind of diplomatic resolve that has long been absent in inter-Korean relations, and analysts say it could be a tentative new start.

It's also a political and diplomatic victory for new South Korean President Park Geun-hye, who expressed her country's interest in talks and rebuilding trust even as she batted back North Korean war rhetoric with vows to hit back strongly if attacked.

"It's very significant that they're sitting down and talking at all … after all the heated rhetoric this spring," said John Delury, an analyst at Seoul's Yonsei University. "It shows political will. Both sides could have called it off."

The main topics will be stalled rapprochement projects left over from friendlier days, including the resumption of operations at a jointly run factory park just north of the border. It was the last remaining symbol of inter-Korean co-operation until Pyongyang pulled out its workers in April during heightened tensions that followed its February nuclear test.

North Korea, however, is also pushing for something Seoul hasn't agreed to: A discussion Wednesday of how to jointly commemorate past inter-Korean statements, including the anniversary Saturday of a statement settled during a landmark 2000 summit between liberal President Kim Dae-jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, the current ruler's late father.

Commitments faded

This matters to North Korea because the June 15 statement from the 2000 summit, along with another 2007 leaders' summit, include both important symbolic nods to future reconciliation and also economic co-operation agreements that would benefit the North financially.

Those commitments faded after Park's conservative predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, took office in 2008. His insistence that large-scale government aid be linked to North Korea making progress on past commitments to abandon its nuclear ambitions drew a furious reaction from Pyongyang. Relations deteriorated further in 2010 after a North Korean bombardment of a South Korean island killed four people, and the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan killed 46 sailors.

A Seoul-led international investigation blamed a North Korean torpedo for the Cheonan attack, and South Korea has demanded an apology from the North before it will allow any exchanges. Pyongyang denies any role in the sinking, and the two sides will presumably bring those irreconcilable positions with them Wednesday.

Wants accountability

Since her presidential campaign, Park has mixed a tough line with policies of engagement, aid and reconciliation with the North — a recognition of the frustration many South Koreans felt about Lee's hard-line policies.

Analyst Park Hyeong-jung said North Korea wants the past statements on the agenda to forge a "relationship that is to their advantage. They want to hold the present South Korean administration accountable for the declarations of past administrations."

"This is the first time in a long time both sides are meeting," said Park, a senior research fellow at the government-affiliated Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul. "Rather than a breakthrough, this week's talks are only the beginning."

Both Koreas have also agreed to discuss resuming South Korean tours to a North Korean mountain resort and the reunion of separated families, officials said.

There's little chance that the narrowly defined talks will tackle the crucial question of pushing Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear bombs. North Korea has said it will never give them up, though the U.S. and other countries say it must if it is to rebuild its relationship with the rest of the world.

Positive sign

It's still unclear who will represent each side Wednesday. Seoul said it will send a senior-level official responsible for North Korea-related issues while Pyongyang said it would send a senior-level government official, without elaborating. A minister-level summit between the Koreas has not happened since 2007.

Dialogue at any level marks a positive sign in the countries' recent history, which has seen North Korean nuclear tests and long-range rocket launches. The armistice ending the three-year Korean War that was signed 60 years ago next month hasn't been replaced with a peace treaty, leaving the Korean Peninsula technically at war.

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.

More bomb fuel

After UN sanctions were strengthened following North Korea's third nuclear test in February, Pyongyang, which is estimated to have a handful of crude nuclear devices, 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.

Chang Yong-seok, a senior researcher at Seoul National University's Institute for Peace and Unification Studies, said he is optimistic that the Koreas can resume work at Kaesong and reunions for separated families. But he said a quick breakthrough is unlikely because North Korea's gesture for closer ties runs counter to South Korea's demand for apologies.