TOKYO — The specter of conflict on the Korean Peninsula has receded, at least temporarily, as representatives from North and South Korea began a second day of talks aimed at defusing rising tensions. The two sides resumed discussions at 3 p.m. Seoul time (2 a.m. Eastern) Sunday.
With Pyongyang threatening “strong military action” if the South did not take down propaganda speakers by 5 p.m. local time Saturday, and Seoul vowing to retaliate if provoked, the leaders of the estranged neighbors sent officials to the border village of Panmunjom on Saturday night.
South Korea’s unification minister, Hong Yong-pyo, and national security adviser Kim Kwan-jin met with their North Korean equivalents, Kim Yang Gon and Hwang Pyong So for more than 10 hours, adjourning only at 4:15 a.m. Seoul time (3:15 p.m. EDT). Hwang, the director of the general political bureau of the North Korean army, is considered to be the country’s second-most powerful person after leader Kim Jong Un. Both of the North Korean officials visited the South in October.
South Korean television broadcast pictures of the men smiling as they shook hands across a table in the village where the truce that ended the Korean War was signed in 1953. Notably, in its announcement of the talks, North Korea used the term “Republic of Korea” rather that its usual “puppet state” to talk about the South, which analysts interpreted as a positive sign.
“The two sides held in-depth consultations on how to resolve the situation that was recently created, and how to improve inter-Korean relations,” said Min Kyung-wook, a spokesman for South Korean President Park Geun-hye.
However, he did not go into details of the talks, which came as a relief on the peninsula, divided since the end of the Korean War.
North Korea has a history of making colorfully worded threats that it does not, or cannot, follow through on, and despite Pyongyang’s bluster, analysts were not expecting Kim Jong Un’s regime to order an attack. Such action would be suicidal for North Korea, which does not have the firepower of the United States, which still has about 28,000 troops in South Korea.
Still, analysts warned of the chance of an accidental confrontation. With conventional artillery lined up along the demilitarized zone, North Korea has the capacity to inflict major damage on Seoul, a city of 10 million people just 30 miles south of the border.
“The periodic exchange of harsh words on the Korean Peninsula is one thing and has become all too common,” said Joel Wit, a former American diplomat who dealt with North Korea and is now at the U.S.-Korea Institute at SAIS. “But the exchange of artillery fire is another thing altogether and reminds all of us of the dangerous potential for tensions to escalate out of control.”
Pyongyang had given Seoul a 5 p.m. Saturday deadline to dismantle speakers recently erected along the 2
North Korea, in turn, set up its own speakers.
The speakers, which were a standard fixture in the demilitarized zone until a decade ago, were South Korea’s response to a landmine attack that severely injured two South Korean soldiers, which Seoul blames on Pyongyang.
The incident was the most serious rise of tension since North Korea launched a torpedo at a South Korean naval corvette in 2010, sinking it and killing 46 sailors, and Park’s government responded sternly.
“The reason? Casualties,” said Bruce Bechtol, a North Korea security expert who teaches at Angelo State University.
“South Korea’s people take casualties very seriously, and that is what caused the restart of broadcasts into North Korea, which caused North Korea to again take violent action with artillery — responded to once again with counter-battery fire from the South Korean army. This may lead to more violent but low-level combat exchanges,” Bechtol said.
As the deadline approached, the United States and South Korea — doing annual military drills in the South involving 80,000 troops — sent eight fighters jets into the skies in a show of force against North Korea.
Meanwhile, North Korea appeared to have moved mobile launcher vehicles, loaded with Scud and Rodong missiles, to a site on the east coast, the Yonhap news agency reported, quoting a South Korean government source. North Korea’s Scud-C has a range of about 300 miles, while the Rodong can fly up to 700 miles, putting South Korea in range of the launch site.
Stephan Haggard, a North Korea watcher at the University of California at San Diego, noted that the United States plays a complicated role in this game.
“The coincidence of the mine attack with the onset of exercises may have created nervousness in the North; the leadership might have bought its own narrative that the exercises constituted a threat,” Haggard wrote in a note on the North Korea blog Witness to Transformation. “The more likely possibility is that the manufactured crisis allowed for the misbegotten PR stunt of raising the exercises to the UN Security Council.”
But the United States is “obviously not interested in seeing the situation escalate and is probably urging restraint,” he said.