The highest-level talks between the rival Koreas in years ended late Wednesday with little progress because of North Korea’s call for the delay of annual military drills between Seoul and Washington set for later this month, officials said.
Seoul officials said the meeting in the border truce village of Panmunjom 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. It would be the first such reunions in more than three years.
The “candid” talks formally ended just before midnight, the South’s Unification Ministry said, with a decision to continue discussions but no set timetable for doing so.
During Wednesday’s meeting, South Korea stressed to North Korea that the smooth arrangement of the scheduled family reunions was a first step towards improving inter-Korean ties, according to a statement issued early on Thursday by the South’s Unification Ministry, which is responsible for ties with the North.
North Korea also demanded that South Korea delay the annual military drills set to begin on February 24 with the United States until the end of the family reunions, which are scheduled to start on February 20 and end five days later, the statement said.
“Our side maintained its position that it cannot accept the North’s demands ... because it runs against our principle that there should be no linkage between purely humanitarian and military issues,” the South's Unification Ministry said in a statement.
Seoul and Washington have made it clear there is no question of this year’s drills being cancelled, but US officials have indicated they will be toned down, with no aircraft carrier and no strategic bombers.
The military drills, which Pyongyang claims are preparations for an invasion but the allies call routine, are to end in mid-April.
The chief South Korean delegate at the meeting, Kim Kyou-hyun, is a vice-ministerial-level national security official with the presidential Blue House. The North Korean delegation was headed by senior ruling Workers’ Party official Won Tong Yon, a veteran official specializing in ties with Seoul.
North Korea demanded South Korea send a senior Blue House official to the meeting, according to Seoul’s Unification Ministry.
Before the talks began, Kim had said he wanted to “explore the chance of opening a new chapter on the Korean peninsula”.
Watch: Moments from the North-South high-level talks
'Control your media'
North Korea also took issue with South Korean media reports critical of its leaders and political system and insisted South Korea control its media, the statement said. South Korea rejected the North’s demands.
The statement said the two Koreas agreed to continue to discuss the matters, but did not say when the next meeting would be held.
North Korea cancelled planned reunions at the last minute in September, and has recently threatened to scrap this month’s reunions because of the upcoming US-South Korean drills. But outside analysts say it is unlikely that North Korea will halt the reunions this time because it needs improved ties with South Korea to help attract foreign investment and aid.
Seoul 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.
The North had been expected to push Wednesday for a resumption of regular South Korea tours to its Mount Kumgang resort, but the statement from the South side did not mention the issue.
The South suspended the tours after a tourist was shot and killed by North Korean soldiers in 2008, and Pyongyang is keen to see the return of what was a lucrative source of hard currency.
Underlying nuclear tensions
Wariness in Seoul is still high because of a weeks-long barrage of threats and provocations last spring from Pyongyang after international condemnation of its third nuclear test.
Pyongyang, which has repeatedly vowed to expand its nuclear arsenal, is trying to build nuclear-armed missiles that can reach the continental US, but most experts say the country has yet to master the technology needed to mount an atomic bomb on a missile.
Last month, the top US intelligence official said that North Korea has expanded the size of its uranium enrichment facility at its main nuclear complex and restarted a reactor that was used for plutonium production before it was shut down in 2007.
Although there was no agreement, the decision to hold further talks will fuel hopes that the two sides are sincere in seeking some common ground to improve cross-border ties.
Stephan Haggard, a North Korea expert at the Peterson Institute for International Economics said the fact the talks were held at all was “clearly one of the most significant diplomatic developments in North-South relations” during the Park presidency.
But Haggard warned that a continued North Korean focus on getting the military exercises cancelled could kill the momentum.
“If it is pushed hard -- or raised as a condition for future progress -- the initiative will fade,” he said.
The meeting came a day before US Secretary of State John Kerry’s arrival in Seoul for a brief visit focused on North Korea.
The meeting was the highest between the Koreas in years. They held a series of high-level meetings in 2007, including a second summit of their leaders, according to the Unification Ministry.
Nuclear envoys met in 2011 on the sidelines of a regional security forum in Indonesia. Since then, ties have become increasingly bad. Last June, plans to hold a high-level meeting fell apart because of a protocol dispute over who would represent each side.
The Korean Peninsula technically remains in a state of war because the Korean War ended with a ceasefire, not a peace treaty.