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North, South Korea on alert as talks resume

​Top aides to the leaders of North and South Korea resumed talks on Sunday after negotiating through the night in a bid to ease tensions involving an exchange of artillery fire that brought the peninsula to the brink of armed conflict.

South remains on high alert, continuing propaganda broadcasts

North Koreans sign up to join the army in the midst of political tension with South Korea, in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang. (KCNA via Reuters)

​Top aides to the leaders of North and South Korea resumed talks on Sunday after negotiating through the night in a bid to ease tensions involving an exchange of artillery fire that brought the peninsula to the brink of armed conflict.

The meeting at the Panmunjom truce village inside the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) began on Saturday evening, with both sides on military alert, shortly after North Korea's deadline for Seoul to halt anti-Pyongyang propaganda broadcasts or face military action. It broke up before dawn on Sunday.

The envoys, shown on TV exchanging handshakes and tight smiles at the start of their meeting, discussed ways to resolve tensions and improve ties, South Korea's presidential Blue House said in a brief statement.

"Both sides are under big pressure to get something out of this," said Jeon Young-sun, professor at the Institute of the Humanities for Unification at Konkuk University in Seoul, who said the length of the high-level meeting may be unprecedented.

The talks took place in South Korea's Peace House, just south of Panmunjom's often-photographed sky-blue huts, and the same venue where lower-level talks between the bitter rivals took place in February 2014, without ending in agreement.

The negotiations were interrupted with breaks for both sides to consult with their respective governments, and for snacks, the South's Yonhap News Agency reported.

"North Korea wants to stop broadcasts, while South Korea can't do it without achieving anything back," Jeon said.

Artillery fire exchanged

North Korea and South Korea have remained technically in a state of war since their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, and inter-Korean relations have been in a deep freeze since the deadly 2010 sinking of a South Korean warship. Pyongyang denied responsibility.

The current tensions began early this month when two South Korean soldiers were wounded by landmines along the border. The North denies laying the mines. Days later, Seoul began its propaganda broadcasts in random three-hour bursts from 11 banks of loudspeakers, including news reports and K-pop music from the South, resuming a tactic both sides halted in 2004.

The crisis escalated on Thursday when the North fired four shells into the South, according to Seoul, which responded with a barrage of 29 artillery rounds. North Korea declared a "quasi-state of war" in front-line areas and made an ultimatum for Seoul to halt its broadcasts.

That deadline passed on Saturday without any reported incidents.
South Korea recently resumed its propaganda broadcasts, using 11 banks of loudspeakers to blast news reports and K-pop music into the North. (You Sung-Ho/Reuters)

Calls for calm

The United Nations, the United States and the North's lone major ally, China, have all called for calm.

The United States, which has 28,500 soldiers based in South Korea, is conducting annual joint military exercises with the South. North Korea regularly condemns the manoeuvres as a preparation for war.

South Korean President Park Geun-hye's national security adviser and her unification minister met with Hwang Pyong So, the top military aide to the North's leader Kim Jong Un, and Kim Yang Gon, a veteran official in inter-Korean affairs, on Saturday, prompting hopes for a breakthrough.

Despite the talks, South Korea's military remained on high alert, a defence official said, and the South has said it has no plans to halt the broadcasts. Pyongyang's state media has continued its hostile anti-South rhetoric.

On Sunday, the North's military was on heightened combat posture with twice the usual artillery deployed on the frontline and a majority of its submarine fleet — more than 50 — away from bases, Yonhap said.

South Korea accused the North of torpedoing one of its navy ships in 2010 from a submarine, which Pyongyang denies.

Pyongyang's two negotiators made an unexpected visit to the South last October to attend the closing ceremony of the Asian Games, where they met Kim Kwan-jin, Park's national security adviser, who is leading the South's delegation this weekend. Those talks raised hopes for an improvement in relations, which did not materialise.

North Korea has been hit with UN and U.S. sanctions because of repeated nuclear and missile tests, moves that Pyongyang sees as an attack on its sovereign right to defend itself.

A South Korean soldier carries a barricade at a checkpoint on the Grand Unification Bridge which leads to the truce village Panmunjom, on Aug. 22, 2015. (Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters)

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