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North, South Korea hold rare high-level talks

SEOUL -- North and South Korean officials held their highest level talks for years Wednesday, seeking to thrash out common ground for improving ties despite a row over looming South Korea-U.S. military drills.

The discussions in the border truce village of Panmunjom had no fixed agenda, but aimed to cover a range of “major” issues, including a planned Feb. 20-25 reunion for family members divided by the Korean War.

A short morning dialogue was followed by three hours of discussions in the afternoon, after which the two chief delegates began a one-on-one session at 7:15 p.m. (1000 GMT).

The South delegation was led by top National Security Council official Kim You-hun, who said Seoul's focus was on ensuring that the reunion went ahead as scheduled.

The North side, led by Won Tong Yon — deputy head of a ruling party organization that handles inter-Korean ties — was expected to make another push for South Korea to cancel its annual military drills with the United States, which are slated to begin Feb. 24.

Before the talks began, Kim promised to keep “an open attitude to explore the chance of opening a new chapter on the Korean peninsula”.

He did not mention whether North Korea's nuclear program would be discussed.

It was the first such high-level sit-down between the two sides since 2007, and came a day before U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's arrival in Seoul for a brief visit focused on North Korea.

The North wants to resume talks with Seoul and Washington on nuclear matters, but both have insisted that Pyongyang must first make a tangible commitment to abandoning nuclear weapons.

The Panmunjom meet was requested by Pyongyang and made front-page headlines in the South.

But it barely merited a mention in the North's state media, with the official KINA news agency putting out a one-line dispatch on Wednesday.

North looking for concessions?

Kim Yong-hun, a North Korean expert at Donging University in Seoul, said Pyongyang was keen to make a public display of its diplomatic credentials.

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