South and North Korea talk in bid to calm mounting tensions

South and North Korea talk in bid to calm mounting tensions

South Korea and North Korea are holding their first high-level talks in nearly a year in a bid to defuse mounting tensions that have led to the brink of a military confrontation.

The closed-door meeting at the border town of Panmunjom, where the armistice ending fighting in the Korean War was agreed in 1953, began shortly after a deadline set by North Korea for the South to dismantle loudspeakers broadcasting anti-North Korean propaganda.

North Korea has declared its front-line troops are in full war readiness and prepared to go to battle if Seoul does not back down.

The South Korean presidential office said earlier that the country's national security director, Kim Kwan-jin, and unification minister Hong Yong-pyo would sit down with Hwang Pyong So, the top political officer for the Korean People's Army, and Kim Yang Gon, a senior North Korean official responsible for South Korean affairs.

Mr Hwang is considered by outside analysts to be North Korea's second most important official after supreme leader Kim Jong Un.

The meeting came as a series of incidents raised fears that the conflict could spiral out of control, starting with a land mine attack, allegedly by the North, that maimed two South Korean soldiers, and the South's resumption of anti-Pyongyang propaganda broadcasts.

A South Korean defence ministry official said that the South would continue with the anti-Pyongyang broadcasts during the meeting and would make a decision on whether to halt them depending on the result of the talks.

South Korea had been using 11 loudspeaker systems along the border for the broadcasts, which included the latest news around the Korean Peninsula and the world, South Korean popular music and programmes praising the South's democracy and economic affluence over the North's oppressive government, a senior military official said.

If North Korea attacks the loudspeakers, the South is ready to strike back at the North Korean units responsible for such attacks, he added.

North Korea, which has also restarted its own propaganda broadcasts, is extremely sensitive to any criticism of its government. Analysts in Seoul also believe the North fears that the South's broadcasts could demoralize its front-line troops and inspire them to defect.

The high-level meeting was first proposed by Pyongyang on Friday. The rival countries reached an agreement for the meeting this morning after the North accepted the South's demand that Mr Hwang would be present at the meeting, South Korea's presidential office said.

Mr Hwang and Kim Yang Gon visited South Korea in October last year during the Asian Games in Incheon, but their meeting with Mr Kim, the South's national security director, and then-unification ministry Ryoo Kihl-jae failed to produce a tangible outcome in improving ties between the countries.

The North's state-run media has strongly ratcheted up its rhetoric, saying the whole nation is bracing for the possibility of an all-out war. Kim Jong Un has been shown repeatedly on TV news broadcasts leading a strategy meeting with the top military brass to review the North's attack plan, and young people are reportedly swarming to recruitment centres to sign up to join the fight.

US-based experts on North Korea said the land mine blast and this past week's shelling were the most serious security incidents at the border since Kim Jong Un came to power after the 2011 death of his father, Kim Jong Il. The country was founded by Kim Jong Un's grandfather, Kim Il Sung.

"If Kim Jong Il or Kim Il Sung was in charge, I would say that leadership in North Korea would recognise that South Korea has responded in kind to an attack and it's time to stand down," said Evans Revere, a former senior State Department official on East Asia.

"But I'm not sure Kim Jong Un understands the rules of the game established by his father and grandfather on how to ratchet up tensions and then ratchet them down. I'm not sure if he knows how to de-escalate."

The North denies responsibility for the land mine attack and says it did not fire across the border, a claim Seoul says is nonsense.

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