For the first time in seven years, North and South Korea held rare high-level talks at the Panmunjon truce village on the border. Apart from the rarity of the meeting itself, it is notable for having been arranged in a remarkably short amount of time and with no particular agenda agreed upon prior to the meeting. The meeting comes as the North demands that South Korea and the United States halt their regularly scheduled annual military exercises and as a planned family reunion between North and South Koreans approaches.
According to Reuters, the South Korean delegation was spearheaded by the president’s deputy national security adviser while the North sent the Workers’ Party’s second-highest ranking official charged with relations with the South. The high-level talks come just ahead of a scheduled visit to Seoul by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday.
The primary purpose of the meeting for the South Koreans will be to gauge the immediate intentions of Kim Jong-un’s government. Ever since the regime’s effective second-in-command Jang Song-thaek was executed in late 2013, North Korea’s intentions took on more ambiguity than normal. The shift indicated a broader purge within the state and caused many observers to become concerned that what remains of Beijing’s grasp over its irascible ally was slowly eroding.
Since then, however, there are reassuring signs that the North might be interested in engagement. Despite its hostile rhetoric over the prospect of joint U.S.-South Korea exercises, Kim Jong-un did mention that he sought better ties with the South during his New Years Day address. Additionally, the fact that the North agreed to family reunions indicates that it might be seeking to build confidence with the South. 2013 saw relations deteriorate dramatically over threatening rhetoric from the North.
Cheong Seong-chang, a South Korea expert at the Sejong Institute, notes that “For the North, if it comes back with an accomplishment in terms of improved South-North ties, it will mean a better atmosphere for Kim Jong-un to visit China and a justification to pursue high-level talks with the United States.” Kim Jong-un has yet to make an official visit abroad and it is highly likely that he will attempt to visit Beijing this year.
In 2013, the Kaesong industrial park closed for five months and opened again in September. Relations last year between the two neighbors were at their lowest level since 2010 when a North Korean torpedo sank South Korea’s Cheonan, killing 46 South Korean sailors in the process. In response to the attack, South Korea halted all trade and most investment activities with the North but restrained itself from taking military action.
It is likely that the North broached the topic of having the post-Cheonan incident sanctions lifted during the meeting. President Park Geun-hye has indicated that she is willing to provide humanitarian aid and possibly soften on economic sanctions should the North show rhetorical restraint and offer confidence-building gestures.