North Korea has agreed to open dialogue with neighbouring South Korea for the first time in more than two years, according to officials in Seoul.
The meeting will be held on January 9 at the border village of Panmunjom, inside the demilitarised zone (DMZ).
The North Korean government has notified neighbouring officials that it will send delegates to the high-level talks, the South’s unification ministry confirmed on Friday.
The meeting will focus on improving relations between the pair and North Korea’s potential participation in next month’s Winter Olympics, due to be held in the South Korean city of Pyeongchang, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency quoted ministry spokesman Baik Tae-hyun as saying on Friday.
“The two sides decided to discuss working-level issues for the talks by exchanging documents,” Baik said.
Which specific officials will attend the summit, marking the first official talks between the neighbouring countries since December 2015, is yet to be confirmed.
Japan’s defence minister, Itsunori Onodera, has cautioned about the need to “maintain a firm defence posture” against Pyongyang regardless of renewed talks.
“North Korea goes through phases of apparent dialogue and provocation but either way, North Korea is continuing its nuclear and missile development. We have no intention of weakening our warning and surveillance,” he said in Tokyo on Friday.
Bong Youngshik, of the Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies, says there is concern that an improvement in relations between the two Koreas may lead to greater economic cooperation and thus “undermine the effectiveness of economic sanctions” on Pyongyang.
“It seems like the South Korean government is very aware that this is a trap set by North Korea but you have to walk into the trap in order to first ease the dangerous tension on the Korean Peninsula at the risk of actual war taking place,” he told Al Jazeera from Seoul.
“And, second, by improving inter-Korean relations and creating an atmosphere conducive to meaningful dialogue and negotiations, eventually North Korea and the US are likely to agree to have a direct talk on the denuclearization issue.”
The announcement of diplomatic talks came just hours after the US and South Korea agreed to suspend military exercises off the peninsula until after the Winter Games.
Military drill suspended
US President Donald Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in discussed the situation on the peninsula in a phone call on Thursday.
“The two leaders agreed to de-conflict the Olympics and our military exercises so that United States and Republic of Korea forces can focus on ensuring the security of the Games,” a White House statement said following the call.
The decision to delay the exercises was a “practical matter” and they will resume sometime following the winter games, US defence chief James Mattis said.
“We have at times changed the timelines on these [drills] for any number of reasons, so for us this is the normal give and take that we have,” he said at the Pentagon on Thursday.
Tensions escalated on the Korean Peninsula throughout 2017 over a series of missile tests conducted by the North, and the North’s pursuit of a nuclear weapons programme.
But recent developments indicate hostilities may be easing, and a thawing of relations between Seoul and Pyongyang.
On January 3, the two Koreas restored a cross-border hotline that had been shut down since 2016.
The move followed an announcement by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un that his country is “open to dialogue” with South Korea during a televised New Year’s address on January 1.
Improving relations between the North and South is an “urgent issue”, he said, adding that the “entire Korean nation needs to put its efforts towards resolving [the crisis]”.