SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — The highest-level talks between the rival Koreas in years ended with little progress because of North Korea's call for the delay of annual U.S.-South Korean military drills set to start later this month, South Korean officials said Thursday.
Officials in Seoul said Wednesday's meeting was requested by North Korea, which has launched a recent charm offensive after raising tensions last spring with repeated threats to fire nuclear-tipped missiles against Seoul and Washington. Later this month, the two Koreas are to hold reunions of families separated since the 1950-53 Korean War.
The reunions would be the first of their kind in more than three years, and some outside analysts believe they will go forward despite Pyongyang's anger over military drills and cancellation of similar planned meetings last year. North Korea is seen as needing good ties with Seoul to pursue outside investment and aid and to win a resumption of lucrative cooperative ventures with the South.
During the meeting, South Korea stressed to North Korea that the smooth arrangement of the scheduled family reunions is a first step toward improving inter-Korean ties, according to a statement issued early Thursday by the South's Unification Ministry, which is responsible for ties with North Korea. The statement said the two Koreas agreed to continue discussions but didn't say when the next meeting would be held.
North Korea demanded South Korea delay the annual military drills set to begin Feb. 24 with the United States until the end of the family reunions, which are scheduled to start Feb. 20 and end five days later, the statement said. South Korea refused, saying it cannot link a purely humanitarian matter to a military issue. The military drills, which Pyongyang claims are preparations for an invasion but the allies call routine, are to end in mid-April.
North Korea said it basically agrees on holding the reunions but doesn't want them to happen when the South Korea-U.S. military drills are underway, a South Korean Unification Ministry official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of department rules.
That position indicates Pyongyang may cancel the part of the reunions that overlaps with the first two days of the military drills, said Koh Yu-hwan, a professor at Seoul's Dongguk University.
North Korea canceled planned reunions at the last minute in September, and has recently threatened to scrap this month's reunions because of the upcoming U.S.-South Korean military drills. But outside analysts say it's unlikely that North Korea will halt the reunions this time because improved ties with South Korea are needed if it is to attract help for its struggling economy.
After high tensions last year, there has been a gradual softening in Seoul's stance toward Pyongyang in recent weeks, according to Robert Carlin, a contributor to 38 North, a North Korea-focused website, and a former U.S. State Department official.
"Depending on whether both sides are looking for progress or want to dig in their heels, this would seem to open the way to exploration of various compromises," Carlin, a frequent visitor to North Korea, wrote of the Wednesday meeting in a 38 North commentary provided to The Associated Press. "When they want to be, both sides are capable of imaginative solutions to what at first look to be intractable problems."
South Korea has so far dismissed North Korea's recent proposals for a series of measures that Pyongyang says are needed to ease tensions, saying the North must first take nuclear disarmament steps and show how sincere it is about its stated desire to improve ties.
North Korea on Wednesday also took issue again with South Korean media reports critical of its leaders and political system and insisted South Korea control its media, the South's statement said. South Korea rejected the North's demands.
Associated Press writers Kwon Su Hyeon and Foster Klug in Seoul contributed to this report.