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North, South Koreas headed to the table

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By The Washington Post
Sunday, June 9, 2013, 8:45 p.m.

SEOUL — North and South Korea held a preliminary meeting on Sunday “without argument,” a South Korean official said, and agreed to reconvene this week for what would be the highest-level talks in six years.

The dialogue, at a powder-blue hut in the middle of the demilitarized border between the Koreas, seemed to provide evidence that Seoul and Pyongyang want to back away from the hostility of recent months.

Before these talks, described by South Korea as “working-level,” it was uncertain whether the two countries would be interested in a second, more substantive round of dialogue between cabinet ministers. Those talks are scheduled for Wednesday in Seoul.

The two sides agreed on that meeting early in the day, South Korean officials said, but hours of follow-up discussion were needed to iron out the details. Thirteen hours after the talks had started, they were still at the table.

“The two sides shared the same understanding in regards to the ministers' meeting,” said Kim Hyung-suk, a spokesman for the South's Ministry of Unification.

Understanding between the Koreas has proved elusive in recent years, a period during which the North has tested underground nuclear devices, fired long-range rockets and carried out a pair of fatal attacks on the South. The last time Seoul and Pyongyang met on the peninsula for formal talks, in February 2011, North Korea's representatives abruptly refused to continue, and the North said its counterparts were “scoundrels” and “traitors” who had no interest in reconciliation. Those talks, too, had been designed to pave the way for a higher-level meeting.

South Korea's three-person delegation was represented by Chun Hae-sung, who said before the talks that he wanted to “build trust” in North-South relations. That goal corresponds with the yet-unrealized “Trustpolitik” strategy of South Korean President Park Geun-hye, who wants to restart small cooperative projects with the North and add more ambitious ones if things go well.

On Wednesday, the two sides are likely to discuss resuming operations at Kaesong, a jointly run industrial complex that shut down in April when the North pulled out its 53,000 workers. Pyongyang also is pushing the South to resume tours at the North Korean resort of Mount Kumgang, where in 2008 a South Korean tourist was shot and killed by a North Korean guard.

A relative breakthrough came last week when North Korea, after months of warlike threats, proposed government talks. But analysts in Seoul are doubtful that the North, under third-generation leader Kim Jong Un, is willing to change its broader pattern of behavior - raising tensions, then trying to win concessions on issues such as aid and energy through reconciliation.

The North has vowed repeatedly to never give up its stockpile of nuclear weapons. The North-South talks don't deal directly with denuclearization, but the North's stance represents a barrier to multinational talks, where the implicit goal is to change North Korea's menacing tactics. South Korea says it isn't interested in joining the so-called six-party talks - which also involve the United States and China - unless the North shows genuine interest in giving up its nuclear weapons.

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