Reporting from Seoul — Military officials from North and South Korea on Tuesday held the first cross-border talks in four months, opening discussions many hope will ease tensions on the divided peninsula but which critics dismiss as the North's ploy to secure food aid from Seoul.
The two sides conducted morning and afternoon sessions at the border village of Panmunjom, preliminary talks that officials from the U.S. and China hoped would pave the way for continued discussions.
"Both sides have been discussing the agenda and process for a higher-level meeting," South Korea Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok told Yonhap news service. "The atmosphere was serious, and there were no political arguments from the two sides."
Tuesday's meeting involved military colonels, and some observers here speculated that future talks might include the defense ministers from both sides.
But Seoul officials reiterated their demands that North Korea must first apologize and take "responsible measures" for the sinking in March of a warship, which killed 46 crewmen, and the November artillery shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, which killed four people. North Korea has also ramped up unease with revelations of major advancements in its nuclear program.
"Our stance has not changed," Kim said before the start of Tuesday's talks.
After months of belligerence, Pyongyang has recently set a more conciliatory tone, leading many experts to believe the talks to be a subtle strategy to receive more aid.
"North Korea wants food, and they want to move to high-level talks. They want it sooner than later because they need the food immediately," said Choi Jin-wook, a senior research fellow at the Korea Institute of National Unification. "They are also hoping these talks would again build the relationship between the two Koreas."
Pyongyang has denied involvement in the sinking of the warship Cheonan. However, in the midst of a harsh winter during which many North Koreans are believed to be starving, Pyongyang may move toward some concessions thought improbable months ago.
Obama administration officials say North Korea must admit its role in the killing of the South Korean sailors before the U.S. and its allies will return to the so-called six-party talks aimed at disarming the North's nuclear program, discussions that could also result in sizable economic aid to the country.
The talks, which involve the two Koreas, the U.S., China, Japan and Russia, were halted in 2009 when North Korea walked away in protest of U.N. and international sanctions imposed over its nuclear and missile tests.
Many observers believe that once North Korea returns to the talks, the international community would soon reward the country with food and aid.
Jung-yoon Choi in The Times' Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.