Rival Koreas restart talks, pull back from brink for now

AP , Sunday 23 Aug 2015

S Korea
In this photo provided by the South Korean Unification Ministry, South Korean Unification Minister Hong Yong-pyo, left, and National Security Director, Kim Kwan-jin, second from left, meet with Kim Yang Gon, right, a senior North Korean official responsible for South Korean affairs, and Hwang Pyong So, North Korea' top political officer for the Korean People's Army, at the border village of Panmunjom in Paju, South Korea, Saturday, Aug. 22, 2015. (Photo:AP)

For the moment, North and South Korea have pulled back from the brink and on Sunday resumed a second round of talks that temporarily pushed aside vows of imminent war on the peninsula.

The first round of marathon talks on Saturday came to nothing, and South Korea's military reported Sunday that it detected unusual troop and submarine movements in North Korea that indicated Pyongyang was strengthening its capability for a possible strike.

Still, even the decision for senior officials from countries that have spent recent days vowing to destroy each other to simply sit down at a table in Panmunjom, the border enclave where the 1953 armistice ending fighting in the Korean War was agreed to, is something of a victory.

The length of the first round of talks — nearly 10 hours — and the lack of immediate progress are not unusual. While the Koreas often have difficulty agreeing to talks, overlong sessions, once they do, are often the rule. After decades of animosity and bloodshed, however, finding common ground is much harder.

Seoul's presidential spokesman Min Kyung-wook did not disclose details about the first round of talks, which adjourned just before dawn Sunday. The talks began shortly after a deadline set by North Korea for the South to dismantle loudspeakers broadcasting anti-Pyongyang propaganda at their border. North Korea had declared that its front-line troops were in full war readiness and prepared to go to battle if Seoul did not back down.

An official from Seoul's Defense Ministry, who didn't want to be named because of office rules, said that about 70 percent of the North's 77 submarines had left their bases and were undetectable by the South Korean military as of Saturday.

The official also said that the North had doubled the strength of its front-line artillery forces since the start of the talks early Saturday evening.

The standoff is the result of a series of events that started with the explosions of land mines on the southern side of the Demilitarized Zone between the Koreas that Seoul says were planted by North Korea. The explosions maimed two South Korean soldiers on a routine patrol. In response, the South, for the first time in 11 years, resumed anti-Pyongyang propaganda broadcasts, infuriating the North, which is extremely sensitive to any criticism of its warlike, authoritarian system.

There was shock and worry Thursday, when South Korea's military fired dozens of artillery rounds across the border in response to what Seoul said were North Korean artillery strikes meant to back up an earlier threat to attack the loudspeakers. The North denies it was behind the land mines and the shelling, claims that Seoul calls nonsense.

An official from South Korea's Defense Ministry, speaking on customary condition of anonymity, said that the South continued the anti-Pyongyang broadcasts even after the start of the talks on Saturday. The officials said Seoul would decide on whether to halt the broadcasts depending on the result of the talks.

While the meeting offered a way for the rivals to avoid an immediate collision, analysts in Seoul wondered whether the countries were standing too far apart to expect a quick agreement.

South Korea probably couldn't afford to walk away with a weak agreement after it had openly vowed to stem a "vicious cycle" of North Korean provocations amid public anger over the land mines, said Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea expert at Seoul's Dongguk University.

It was highly unlikely that the North would accept the South's expected demand for Pyongyang to take responsibility for the land mine explosions and apologize, he added. However, Koh said the meeting might open the door to more talks between the rivals to discuss a variety of issues.

At the meeting, South Korea's presidential national security director, Kim Kwan-jin, and Unification Minister Hong Yong-pyo sat down with Hwang Pyong So, the top political officer for the Korean People's Army, and Kim Yang Gon, a senior North Korean official responsible for South Korean affairs.

Hwang is considered by outside analysts to be North Korea's second most important official after supreme leader Kim Jong Un.

South Korea had been using 11 loudspeaker systems along the border for the broadcasts, which included the latest news around the Korean Peninsula and the world, South Korean popular music and programs praising the South's democracy and economic affluence over the North's oppressive government, said a senior military official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Each loudspeaker system has broadcast for more than 10 hours a day, the official said. If North Korea attacks the loudspeakers, the South is ready to strike back at the North Korean units responsible, he said.

Authoritarian North Korea, which has also restarted its own propaganda broadcasts, is extremely sensitive to any criticism of its government. Analysts in Seoul also believe the North fears that the South's broadcasts could demoralize its front-line troops and inspire them to defect.

In Pyongyang, North Korean state media reported that more than 1 million young people have volunteered to join or rejoin the military to defend their country should a conflict break out.

Despite such highly charged rhetoric, which is not particularly unusual, activity in the capital remained calm, with people going about their daily routines. Truckloads of soldiers singing martial songs could occasionally be seen driving around the city, and a single minivan with camouflage netting was parked near the main train station for a time as the talks with the South went on.

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