Signaling a possible diplomatic thaw after months of tension on the Korean peninsula, South Korea on Thursday agreed to hold high-level military talks with North Korea despite a November attack by the North that killed four people on a disputed South Korean island.
Officials in Seoul announced that they would hold talks with their Northern counterparts, who in recent weeks have made several entreaties for a sit-down to discuss escalating tensions.
The apparent thaw in relations came just hours after a Washington summit Wednesday at which the North’s provocations and nuclear weapons program were discussed and President Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao urged the two Koreas to resume dialogue.
In a statement to the South Korean government early Thursday, the government in Pyongyang suggested ministerial-level talks to discuss “pending” military issues between the two sides. It remained unclear late Thursday whether top political leaders from either side would be involved in the discussions.
The apparent breakthrough came after North Korea reportedly agreed to Seoul’s long-standing demands to discuss the torpedoing of a South Korean warship in March that killed 46 crewmen, according to South Korean news reports. Seoul has blamed the North, which has denied responsibility.
Also up for discussion will be the North’s artillery shelling of the South Korean-controlled Yeonpyeong Island. Seoul also has proposed that the talks include the prospect of Pyongyang abandoning its burgeoning nuclear program.
“The South Korean government will come to the talks to ask North Korea to take responsible measures for the torpedoing of the Cheonan and the artillery attacks on Yeonpyeong and promise not to conduct further military provocation in the future,” a South Korean government official told the Yonhap news agency in Seoul.
Since the first of the year, North Korea has made repeated requests for talks, which have been dismissed in Seoul as insincere propaganda and a blatant ploy for aid by a country that in recent years has faced repeated winter starvation among its populace.
South Korean media on Thursday reported that the North’s most recent proposal encouraged Seoul to choose a time and place for the talks.
The Obama administration has stressed that dialogue between Seoul and Pyongyang was required before the U.S. would support a resumption of the so-called six-party talks — involving the U.S., North and South Korea, Japan, China and Russia — to denuclearize the North, a development that would result in sizable economic aid to the ailing regime.
North Korea quit the talks in 2009.