South Korea today accepted a North Korean proposal to hold preliminary discussions on unifying the divided country, creating the framework for the first political meeting between the bitter enemies in seven years.
A statement issued in Seoul proposed holding the meeting even earlier than June, which was the time originally suggested by the North Koreans.
The sudden and surprising exchange of messages between the two wartime foes has convinced analysts here that a thaw of sorts is beginning on the Korean peninsula and that the two sides are now at least determined to sit down and begin talking.
Some analysts believe that the normalization in Sino-American relations has had a major impact on the the two Koreas. The South Koreans have been trying through both economic and political channels to attain friendly relations with Peking. These analysts suspect that Peking is privately encouraging the North to seek an accommodation with the South.
There was no official reaction today from Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, but sources who usually represent that government's position said the South Korean proposal for early talks will be accepted.
Yesterday, the North Korean proposals issued by the Democratic Front for the Reunification of the Fatherland, a government-controlled organization, were formally endorsed by North Korean Vice President Pak Song Chol, making them an official government initiative.
South Korean Minister of Culture and Information Kim Seong Jin said that a preliminary meeting could be held "as soon as possible either in Seoul or Pyongyang." North Korean sources here said that the old truce-talks village at Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone might be preferable.
Kim said it should not be necessary to wait until June for the "authorities concerned" to begin discussing their problems.
His government's response represented a partial turnabout for South Korea, which initially treated the North Korean suggestion coolly and which had suggested privately that it contained nothing new.
Kim said today his government assumes that North Korea is now willing to return to principles of a 1972 communique promising negotiations, an end to slanderous statements against each other, and efforts to avoid military provocations along the demilitarized zone that has divided the country since 1953.
One obstacle to holding the preliminary talks has now been cleared away. The original North Korean proposal called for a "people's convention" or a "whole-nation congress" representing all political parties and different social groups from both countries. But South Korea had insisted on direct negotiations between authorities in the two governments.
North Korean sources said today their position was not meant to exclude public officials and said that even South Korean President Park Chung Hee would be eligible to attend as leader of his party in the South.
They said the preliminary talks should be attended only by a few "highly placed people" from both sides who would begin the planning for the more broadly based congress to follow.
However, they raised another hurdle by saying Pyongyang would insist that representatives of opposition parties and all groups should be included in South Korea's delegation to the congress. That could raise questions about inclusion of President Park's political antagonists, such as Kim Dae Jung, the opposition leader recently released from prison.
The North Korean sources, who in the past have accurately reflected their government's thinking, said that they regarded the preliminary talks now as almost a certainty. But they said that the two countries' widely differing views on how unification could be achieved would undoubtedly raise many problems once serious negotiations get under way.
The two countries have faced each other with large massed armies ever since the peninsula was divided by war in 1950-1953. Unification talks began in 1972 but were soon broken off in a hail of denunications and a fragile peace has been maintained ever since. South Korea has been supported militarily by the United States while North Korea has enjoyed support from both the Soviet Union and China.
The North Korean sources today indirectly confirmed the suggestion that improved U.S.-China relations had partly been responsible for the Korean thaw. One said that while there is nothing substantially different in their country's current proposal, it must be viewed in the context of "changing international conditions."
Asked to explain, he observed that the United States, China and Japan "have major influence on situations in Asia" and cited both the U.S.-China normalization agreement and last summer's Japan-China peace and friendship treaty as examples. Those developments, he added, "have deep implications for the Korean situation."
Nevertheless, he specifically denied that his government had consulted with China on its new proposal. "It is totally Korean," he insisted.
The North Korean sources also said that talks between the two countries could begin without the removal of all American forces from the South. They insisted this had never been a definite precondition for beginning negotiations, although in the past Pyongyang has said that it would never talk with a government that was no more than a "lackey" of the American "imperialists."
The exceptionally amicable exchanges between North and South Korea began last week when President Park, at a news conference, said his country would be willing to talk with the north "at any time" and "at any level."
North Korea responded with a radio broadcast Tuesday calling for a "whole-nation congress" of people from both sides to begin in September and preliminary discussions to start in early June. Such a convention had been proposed before but never with specific dates and in such conciliatory language.
South Korea at first said only that it would seriously consider the proposition and Kim Seong Jin's reply today was its first public comment.
Kim said: "It has been our consistent stand to improve the relations between the South and the North with a view to achieving independently the peaceful unification of Korea by promoting South-North dialogue with all sincerity in accordance with the spirit, principles and agreement contained in the joint statement, dated July 4, 1972.
"We assume that the North Korean statement is an indication of its willingness to reaffirm the spirit and principles [of that statement] and also to faithfully adhere to the agreed provisions, which among others include refraining from defaming and slandering each other, preventing armed provocations against each other and taking positive measures to prevent military incidents."