South and North Korea are set to hold their first formal talks in more than two years Tuesday to discuss the North's potential participation in next month's Winter Olympics and ways to improve their long-stalled ties.
The two sides will start high-level talks at 10:00 a.m. at the shared border village of Panmunjom in the heavily fortified demilitarized zone that bisects the Koreas, according to Seoul's unification ministry.
The meeting comes after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un extended a rare rapprochement to Seoul in his New Year's message. He expressed a willingness to send a delegation to the PyeongChang Olympics and said the country is open for dialogue.
North Korea accepted Seoul's dialogue offer Friday after the South and the U.S. agreed to postpone their military drills until after the Olympics. It also reopened a long-disconnected border hotline.
"We will make efforts to make the PyeongChang Games and the Paralympics a 'peace festival' and help it serve as the first step toward an improvement in inter-Korean ties," Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon, the chief delegate, told reporters before departure. "To meet people's expectations, we will not be in a hurry and hold the talks in a calm manner.
Cho will lead a five-member government delegation for the talks. His counterpart is Ri Son-gwon, the chairman of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country, North Korea's state agency handling affairs with the South.
The meeting comes against a background of heavy international sanctions against North Korea over its nuclear and missile provocations. It conducted its sixth nuclear test and fired three intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) last year.
The government of liberal President Moon Jae-in has voiced the hope that the North's participation in the games will help ease tensions on the divided peninsula that were sparked by the North's provocations.
Moon also hopes that better inter-Korean relations will pave the way for the resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue and for broader dialogue between the United States and the North.
Though the two Koreas will focus on Olympic cooperation, they are also expected to discuss ways to improve long-stalled inter-Korean ties.
Possible agenda items with regard to the Olympics include whether the North's delegation would travel by land or other routes and whether the two Koreas would march together under a unified Korean flag at the opening and closing ceremonies.
If the land route across the heavily guarded border is chosen, there should be consultation between the military authorities of the two Koreas.
If the North sends a cheering squad or a performing arts and singing team, both sides will also have to consult over details such as travel route, accommodation and security issues.
As to inter-Korean ties, Seoul is expected to highlight the urgency of easing military tensions and resolving the issue of families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War by renewing its July peace proposal.
In July last year, the South proposed holding military talks on easing border tensions and holding a Red Cross meeting to discuss the reunion of divided families. North Korea has not responded to Seoul's offer.
Asked if North Korea's denuclearization issue could be discussed, Baik Tae-hyun, spokesman at Seoul's unification ministry said Monday, "The Koreas plan to discuss Olympic cooperation and issues of mutual concern."
North Korea may repeat its call for South Korea and the U.S. to halt their joint military drills, which Pyongyang has long denounced as a war rehearsal.
The North could also demand that the South lift its economic sanctions and resume inter-Korean economic projects in exchange for its participation in the Winter Games, experts say.
The South closed an inter-Korean industrial complex in the North's border city of Kaesong in 2016 and suspended a joint tour program at Mount Kumgang in 2008.
Resumption of operations at the complex and of the tour project could spark a row over the possible violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions aimed at curbing the inflow of hard currency to the North.
"The high-level talks can be called a success if North Korea agrees to join the Games and the two sides set the date for a next meeting and identify each other's stance over issues of mutual concern," said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies. (Yonhap)