Korean negotiators agree to high-level meetings

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Representatives from North and South Korea on Thursday agreed to start high-level talks on December 11, following a turbulent period in relations between the two sides, South Korea’s Unification Ministry reported.

Meeting on the northern side of the border in the village at Panmunjom, negotiators agreed that new talks between deputy ministers would begin with “pending issues in connection with the improvement of bilateral relations.”

A spokesman for South Korea’s Unification Ministry indicated topics would include South Korean demands for regular family reunions as well as North Korea’s desire to resume tourism to the Mount Kumgang resort in the north.

South Korean tours to the resort were an important source of hard currency for Pyongyang, but were suspended after a female tourist was shot dead by soldiers in 2008, allegedly after walking into a military zone.

According to the Yonhap news agency, around 66,000 family members remain alive in South Korea from the families separated by the division of the peninsula after the Korean War of 1950-53. Their advancing age makes the issue a pressing one.

The December talks are set to take place at the inter-Korean industrial park of Kaesong in North Korea.

Thursday’s talks are a further sign of improved bilateral ties since a landmine explosion in August maimed two South Korean soldiers.

North Korea has since expressed “regret” for the blast.

North and South Korea remain in a technical state of war following the conflict, which ended in a truce rather than a peace treaty.

The South regards North Korea as an unpredictable security threat due to its nuclear weapons programme and repeated missile tests. North Korea lambasts the South as an ally of its biggest enemy, the United States.

The rank of delegates has been a bone of contention at earlier inter-Korean talks. In June 2013, North Korea pulled out one day before high-level talks in Seoul, saying the South’s negotiator was too junior, Yonhap said.

Seoul this time was hoping the North would designate Unification Minister Hong Yong Pyo and Kim Yang Gon, a top official handling inter-Korean ties, to attend the next meetings, Yonhap reported.

But Pyongyang was more likely to send a senior official from the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea, which Seoul views as below the vice ministerial level, it said.

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