North, South Korea hold high-level meeting amid talk of slight detente

SEOUL -- Officials from North and South Korea sat down Wednesday for their first high-level government talks since 2007, with two issues expected to be at the center of discussion: upcoming inter-Korean family reunions and the annual U.S.-South Korean military exercises.

The discussions, being held on the South Korean side of Panmunjom village in the demilitarized zone that separates the two Koreas, come amid recent talk of a slight detente between the two countries.

A new round of family reunions – the first since 2010 -- is scheduled for Feb. 20-25, which would overlap with the military exercises, set to kick off Feb. 24. North Korea has long objected to the exercises, calling them practice for an invasion of its territory.

North Korea has asked that this year’s exercises be canceled, notably in a Jan. 24 news conference in New York when North Korea’s U.N. ambassador, Sin Son Ho, said that the drills elevate the risk of war. "We remind once again that even minor and accidental conflict can immediately lead to an all-out war," Sin said.

The exercises involve thousands of U.S. and South Korean forces holding both simulated and live-fire drills around the Korean peninsula. More than 28,000 U.S. troops are stationed in South Korea.

Before leaving for Wednesday’s meeting, South Korean delegation leader Kim Kyou-hyun said that his priority was ensuring that this month’s family reunions go ahead, South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported.

The family reunions briefly bring together families who were separated by the 1950-53 Korean War. A round of reunions scheduled for September last year was called off at the last minute by North Korea.

North Korea said in a New Year address that it hoped to improve relations with the South in 2014.

North Korea made the offer to hold Wednesday’s talks last weekend, with Seoul accepting Tuesday. South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s administration has been skeptical of the North’s overtures, saying they lacked “sincerity” and could be empty gestures meant to extract more aid for the impoverished nation.

Borowiec is a special correspondent.

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