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Could North-South talks herald breakthrough in Korea?

Analysts are divided on whether Pyongyang is genuinely keen to build better relations with Seoul, or if the discussions are just the latest in a cycle of promises made and then broken. Julian Ryall reports from Tokyo.

Negotiators from Pyongyang and Seoul met on the North Korean side of the border at Panmunjom on Thursday, November 26, for preliminary discussions that may lead to higher-level meetings and a reduction in the tensions that have plagued the Korean Peninsula in recent years.

The meeting is the first tangible sign of progress since an agreement was reached on August 25 that brought to a halt a series of clashes across the Demilitarized Zone that divides the peninsula.

Triggered by a landmine detonation that maimed two South Korean soldiers conducting a regular border patrol, the crisis quickly escalated into an exchange of artillery and rocket fire and both sides mobilizing their ground forces.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un waves at a parade in Pyongyang, North Korea, Saturday, Oct. 10, 2015 (Photo: picture alliance/AP Images/Wong Maye-E)

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The August 25 deal defused the situation, although North Korea declined to respond to the South's repeated requests for the planned talks to start.

"We really expected things to move much faster than this and I think everyone really hoped that we would be moving to a more positive relationship by now," Rah Jong-yil, a former head of South Korean intelligence services and a North Korea expert, told DW.

North Korean proposal

"Repeated proposals from South Korea were met with silence or resistance, but a few days ago they suddenly proposed this meeting," he said.

"My feeling is that Pyongyang is prepared to explore the possibility of good relations with the South in such areas as exchanges and even cooperation," he said. "I think that North Korea is genuine in seeking some sort of breakthrough, although at this stage it will necessarily be small," he added. "But I certainly do not anticipate any major developments in terms of a peace treaty or discussions on a federation."

The very fact that the North proposed the talks suggests that it may be willing to negotiate in good faith. Pyongyang is calling for the South to once again permit tourists to travel to the Mount Kumgang resort, a program that has been halted since North Korean soldiers shot a South Korean tourist dead in July 2008.

For the regime, the resort was a lucrative source of foreign currency as it struggles under United Nations sanctions.

Request for reunions

The representatives of South Korea were expected to use the meeting to call for a repeat of the reunion meetings of Korean families separated since the end of the Korean War in 1953. Seoul wants the reunions to be held at least once a year because all the families involved are elderly and their numbers are dwindling every year.

In the run-up to the talks, however, there were few indications that the North would be toning down its criticism of the South. In an editorial, the North Korean Rodong Sinmun newspaper claimed, "The South Korean government's attitude has not changed at all, before or after the August agreement. It speaks of dialogue and cooperation, but from behind plots with outside forces to do harm to its kindred."

The state-run Korean Central News Agency similarly accused Seoul of "reckless provocation" over military exercises held on Monday, and said the administration was exercising the "cruel suppression" of demonstrators protesting against the government's economic policies.

South seeking dialogue

For Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at the Japan campus of Temple University, the indications are that North Korea has no intention of participating in meaningful discussions.

South Korean soldiers stand guard at a checkpoint on the Grand Unification Bridge which leads to the truce village Panmunjom, just south of the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, in Paju, South Korea, August 24, 2015 (Photo: REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji)

An agreement was reached on August 25 that brought to a halt a series of clashes across the Demilitarized Zone that divides the peninsula

"Every South Korean government has always wanted dialogue with the North, regardless of how terribly Pyongyang has behaved," he said, pointing to the shelling of South Korean islands off the west coast of the peninsula in 2010 and the sinking of the warship Cheonan the same year.

"No South Korean government will ever close that door on the North, but Pyongyang is fully aware of that and uses the situation to its own advantage.

"The North always wants compensation or concessions of some sort as a precondition to taking part in talks and I see the same thing happening with this latest round of discussions," he said.

"It's a constant cycle of making promises, receiving concessions and aid, followed by Pyongyang going back on those promises," Dujarric said. "The only way that cycle is ever going to be broken is for the regime in the North to collapse."