SEOUL — Breaking the ice after a long stalemate plunged relations to their lowest level in two years, South and North Korea announced today that high-level negotiations would resume early next month.
The ministerial level talks--the first since November--are expected to take place the first week of April in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang. It is hoped that they will lead to more reunions of long-separated families.
The announcement that talks would resume was widely predicted because it is generally believed that both sides badly need to show signs of progress--though for quite different reasons.
The last round of talks at North Korea's scenic Mt. Kumgang ended abruptly with mutual recriminations and finger-pointing. After President Bush characterized North Korea as part of an "axis of evil" in January, tensions on the Korean peninsula rose to a height not seen since South Korean President Kim Dae Jung's landmark visit to Pyongyang in June 2000.
"We need to prevent a crisis that could develop on the Korean peninsula," South Korean presidential advisor Lim Dong Wong said today in an interview with the official news agency. Lim, a former unification minister who has long been Kim's point man for North Korea, is expected to lead the delegation next month to Pyongyang.
"There have been talks of a security crisis developing in 2003. . . . To continue our efforts for recovery of the economy, stabilization is necessary. We need to avoid tension."
South Korean presidential spokeswoman Park Sun Sook said in a statement read on national television that "we expect the talks to lay the groundwork for a resumption of stalled relations between South and North Korea." There were also reports that the South Koreans expect their envoy to meet personally with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.
Radio Pyongyang said today that the parties will discuss "the grave issues confronting the people and other matters of common interest."
In a mutual show of goodwill, North Korea is also expected to send the president of its legislature, Kim Yong Nam, and some athletes to attend opening ceremonies of the World Cup soccer games that are being jointly hosted by South Korea and Japan starting May 31. In return, South Korea is expected to send an envoy, perhaps soccer chairman Chung Mong Joon, to attend a festival North Korea is hosting this spring marking the 90th birthday of North Korea's late founder, Kim Il Sung, and the 60th birthday of his son, the current leader.
Despite the publicly chilly atmosphere of the past few months, South and North Korean envoys have been meeting discreetly at Mt. Kumgang and elsewhere in an attempt to restart the dialogue that is ultimately aimed at ending 50 years of animosity dating back to the 1950-1953 Korean War.
South Korea's Kim wants to prove that the "sunshine" policy for which he won a Nobel peace prize is indeed a success. Presidential elections are scheduled here in December, and although Kim is a lame duck, he wants to boost the electoral prospects of his political allies. He also wants North Korean leader Kim to pay a return visit to Seoul, something that was agreed upon during the June 2000 summit.
North Korea, plagued by years of famine and increasingly estranged from the United States, desperately needs hard currency from tourists and foreign investors. The Arirang festival, as the birthday celebration is being called, is widely viewed as a fund-raising vehicle. North Korea hopes to bring tens of thousands of tourists in for the festival beginning April 29 and is selling tickets that cost as much as $300.
"This is a barter deal," said Jean-Jacques Grauhar of the European Chamber of Commerce in Seoul. "Both sides were in a hurry to come up with a compromise before the World Cup and the Arirang games. It is not so often that both sides are eager to meet, but this was a time it was in their mutual interest."
South Korean political scientist Suh Dong Man at Sangji University said, "North Korea's main intention is to earn money, but this could result in something very positive. The atmosphere between North and South Korea has been very cool, and this could be a turning point."
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jo-Anne Prokopowicz said, "The U.S. government supports and welcomes continued dialogue between North and South Korea."
In the unpredictable manner of Korean relations, there is still a possibility that the agreement for a meeting will fall apart. In September, the two Koreas agreed to another round of family reunions, but the deal collapsed. No family reunions have been held since February 2001. The South Korean news agency reported last month that about 12% of the 117,576 South Korean applicants on a waiting list to participate in reunions have died.
Scott Snyder, the Seoul representative for the Asia Society, said he was encouraged that South Korea and North Korea were taking the initiative to get their dialogue going again without waiting for the United States.
"The most important thing is that it shows there is still impetus for inter-Korean interaction and that President Bush's comments have not hindered the potential for the two Koreas to work together."
Chi Jung Nam of The Times' Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.