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Koreas to hold rare high-level discussions

SEOUL--North and South Korea have agreed to hold rare high-level talks Wednesday on a range of “major” issues, before a planned reunion of family members divided by the Korean War.

The meeting involving officials from the South's Defense Ministry, Unification Ministry and Presidential Office will take place at the border truce village of Panmunjom, unification ministry spokesman Kim Eui-do told reporters Tuesday.

It would be the first high-level sit-down by the rivals since South Korean President Park Geun-hye took office a year ago.

According to an official at the unification ministry, the last official high-level talks were held in December 2007.

Although no agenda has been set, there will be “discussions on major inter-Korean issues” including the upcoming family reunion, spokesman Kim said.

President Park has always said the door to dialogue with the North was open, while insisting that substantive talks on its nuclear program can only begin after Pyongyang makes a tangible commitment to abandoning nuclear weapons.

North Korean state media did not immediately report the planned meeting. But the unification ministry said it had come at Pyongyang's request to discuss overall inter-Korean ties.

An official in the presidential Blue House told AFP the South had agreed as a “reciprocal response” to a series of recent conciliatory gestures by North Korea.

Kim Yong-Hyun, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul, said the fact the talks would happen at all was “meaningful” but cautioned against raised expectations.

“It's premature to say whether this will lead to any breakthrough or policy change,” Kim told AFP.

“A clearer answer will come after the meeting, but it will provide an opportunity for both sides to read the minds of their leaders,” he added.

The South Korean delegation at Panmunjom will be led by Kim Kyou-hyun, the first deputy director of national security in Park's administration.

The two nations agreed last week to hold a reunion for several hundred divided family relatives from February 20-25 at the North's Kumgang mountain resort.

But there have been fears the North might cancel the event in protest at South Korea and the United States pushing ahead with annual joint military exercises which begin on Feb. 24.

Pyongyang views the exercises as rehearsals for invasion and has repeatedly called on Seoul to call them off, warning at one point of an “unimaginable holocaust” if they went ahead.

Last year's drills fuelled an unusually sharp and protracted surge in military tensions, with Pyongyang threatening a pre-emptive nuclear strike, and nuclear-capable U.S. stealth bombers making dummy runs over the Korean peninsula.

President Park has personally urged the North to honor the family reunion agreement for the sake of the family members, many of whom are in advanced old age and frail health.

Millions of Koreans were separated by the 1950-53 war, and the vast majority have since died without having had any communication at all with surviving relatives.

Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae said Tuesday that a successful reunion could open a new chapter in relations.

“If the first step goes well, it can move to the next level, expanding the scope of inter-Korean cooperation at a faster speed,” Ryoo told a seminar on Korean unification.

The talks in Panmunjom will take place a day before the arrival in Seoul on Thursday of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry for a visit focused on North Korea.

The U.S. State Department has said it was deeply disappointed” by Pyongyang's decision at the weekend to rescind its invitation to a U.S. envoy to discuss the case of a Korean-American jailed in North Korea.

Ambassador Robert King had hoped to secure the release of Kenneth Bae, who was arrested in November 2012 and later sentenced to 15 years' hard labor on charges of seeking to topple the North's government.

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