By Christine Kim
SEOUL (Reuters) – North and South Korea will hold official talks next week for the first time in more than two years after Pyongyang accepted Seoul’s offer for dialogue, just hours after the United States and South Korea delayed a joint military exercise.
The South’s unification ministry said North Korea had sent its consent for the talks to be held on Jan. 9 in a statement at 0116 GMT. The last time the two Koreas engaged in official talks was in December 2015.
The talks will be held at the border truce village of Panmunjom and officials from both sides are expected to discuss the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics and the improvement of inter-Korean relations, ministry spokesman Baik Tae-hyun told a regular briefing.
North Korea asked for further negotiations regarding the meeting to be carried out via documented exchanges, Baik said. The officials to represent the two Koreas have yet to be confirmed.
The spokesman added there was no change to South Korea’s stance that efforts aimed at the denuclearization of North Korea should be continued, while Seoul would engage Pyongyang as it keeps close communications with the United States and allies.
North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un opened the way for talks with South Korea in a New Year’s Day speech in which he called for reduced tensions on the Korean peninsula and flagged the North’s possible participation in the Winter Olympics.
But Kim remained steadfast on the issue of nuclear weapons, saying the North would mass produce nuclear missiles for operational deployment and again warned he would launch a nuclear strike if his country was threatened.
U.S. President Donald Trump and his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-in announced late on Thursday that annual large-scale military drills usually held in spring would now take place after the Winter Olympics scheduled for February in Pyeongchang.
The North sees these drills as exercises for a possible invasion. South Korea and the United States are technically still at war with North Korea after the 1950-53 Korean conflict ended with a truce, not a peace treaty.
Trump had called the proposed inter-Korean talks a “good thing” and that he would send a high-level delegation, including members of his family, to the Winter Olympics, according to South Korea’s presidential office.
In a tweet, Trump, who hurled fresh insults at the North Korean leader this week, took credit for any dialogue.
“Does anybody really believe that talks and dialogue would be going on between North and South Korea right now if I wasn’t firm, strong and willing to commit our total ‘might’ against the North,” Trump tweeted.
The ramped-up momentum for inter-Korean dialogue follows a year of missile and nuclear tests by North Korea as well as an exchange of bellicose comments from Trump and Kim, which raised alarm across the world.
Earlier this week, Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations said Washington was hearing reports that Pyongyang might be preparing to fire another missile.
South Korea’s defense ministry said on Thursday they had yet to see any evidence of an imminent missile launch but there was always a chance North Korea could test missiles at any time.
Analysts with the website 38 North, which tracks North Korea, reported Pyongyang may be preparing to test a rocket engine at a facility in Sohae, North Pyongan Province where all of the North’s satellite launches have taken place since 2012.
Commercial satellite imagery from Dec. 25 showed a rail-mounted environment shelter had been moved away from a test stand, indicating that an engine test may be in the near future, the website said.
Despite recent media reports that North Korea could soon fire a new rocket, the imagery showed no indications of preparations for such a launch, the analysts found.
(Reporting by Christine Kim; Additional reporting by Hyonhee Shin and Josh Smith; Editing by Michael Perry)