Tension is running high in the Korean peninsula after a recent attack at the border.
North and South Korea have held high-level talks at a North Korean border town, aiming to ease tensions and improve ties that degenerated after a military standoff in August.
Hwang Boo-gi, South Korea’s vice unification minister and the head negotiator, met his North Korean counterpart on Friday at the jointly run industrial park just over the border in the North’s Kaesong city, Yonhap News Agency reported.
South Korean officials want to discuss more reunions in the border town of Panmunjom between ageing family members separated by the 1950-53 Korean war.
Friday’s talks arise from an exchange of artillery fire across the militarised zone in August which prompted a prolonged session of high-level talks between the two rivals.
That led to a deal which mandated that they should have regular contact, and Friday’s meeting is the first in that process.
There is speculation that North Korea might seek the South’s commitment to restart joint tours to its scenic Diamond Mountain resort, which were suspended by the South in 2008 after the fatal shooting of a South Korean tourist there by a North Korean soldier.
“There are a lot of issues to discuss between the South and North. [We] will do our best to resolve them one at a time, step by step,” Hwang said before leaving for Kaesong.
The high-level talks in Kaesong come a day after a rare discussion at the UN Security Council in New York on North Korea’s human rights record.
They also follow claims by North Korea that it has developed a hydrogen bomb.
However, Al Jazeera’s Harry Fawcett, reporting from Seoul, said the US and South Korea had both indicated there was no evidence for the claim.
“The results previous nuclear tests yielded suggest they do not have such powerful bombs,” he said.
Expectations for Friday’s meeting dropped last month when both sides settled during preparatory negotiations for a meeting at the vice-ministerial level. This has probably ruled out discussions on more important issues.
But any negotiations between the rivals, who are separated by the world’s most heavily armed border, should be an improvement on the situation in August when they threatened each other with war over landmine explosions that maimed two South Korean soldiers.
Improving relations with the South is a priority for Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s young leader, who possibly wants tangible diplomatic and economic achievements before a convention of the ruling Workers’ Party in May, according to Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Dongguk University.
The Korean Peninsula remains technically at war, because the Korean war ended with an armistice rather than a peace treaty.
Quick improvements in ties are believed unlikely because the rivals remain far apart on major issues.
Among them are North Korea’s nuclear weapons ambitions and the broad economic sanctions the South has imposed on the North since 2010, when the South blamed a North Korean torpedo for a warship sinking that killed 46 South Koreans.
Security Council meeting
At Thursday’s Security Council debate, the UN accused North Korea of widespread human-rights abuses, including forced labour, torture and mass starvation.
Zeid Raad al-Hussein, the UN human rights chief, said it is “essential” that the Security Council refer North Korea’s human-rights situation to the International Criminal Court, a proposition the country views with alarm.
Ambassadors were told of what the UN says are continued widespread abuses including forced labour, starvation, torture and as many as 120,000 political prisoners.
Two North Korean defectors were also at the Security Council meeting to put a human face and voice to the horrors they suffered.
The Security Council is due to vote on the resolution next week.
Minutes before the meeting started, China demanded a rare vote on whether to discuss the issue, saying the Security Council was not the place to discuss human rights.
Russia, Venezuela and Angola backed China, but the US and eight other countries voted to go forward.
Thursday’s meeting was only the second time the Security Council had taken up human-rights abuses in North Korea.