Breaking the ice after months of confrontation, North and South Korea held face-to-face talks Tuesday on research cooperation over potential volcanic eruption from the Korean peninsula's highest mountain.
Geologists and volcanologists from the two neighboring nations met at the South Korean border town of Munsan to discuss volcanic activities at Mount Paektu, touted by North Korea as leader Kim Jong Il's birthplace.
North Korea's official news agency said the two sides "agreed to positively cooperate with each other" and meet again early next month.
The talks were held amid worries over natural disasters following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that ravaged neighboring Japan's northeast coast and left about 28,000 dead or missing and knocked out reactor cooling systems at the Fukushima nuclear plant, which has leaked radiation into the air and sea.
The meeting, proposed by Pyongyang, could set the stage for easing tensions between the Koreas since the South accused the nuclear-armed North of torpedoing a warship, the Cheonan, in March 2010 with the loss of 46 lives.
Pyongyang denies the charge, but went on to shell South Korea's Yeonpyeon Island last November, killing four people.
Tuesday's meeting was seen as their first move at dialogue since defense talks broke up in acrimony in February.
"In North Korea's perspective, they may need 'pure' contact (to break the ice) which does not involve political and military issues," said Kim Heung-Kwang, president of North Korea Intellectual Solidarity, a group of North Korean defectors based in Seoul.
"Starting from here, that could lead eventually to a summit ...," he said in an interview.
After day-long discussions, the two sides agreed on the need for joint research into potential hazards from Mount Paektu on the border between North Korea and China, said Ryu In-Chang, a geologist with South Korea's Kyungbook National University, AFP reported.
The North offered access to the peak for the South's experts, Ryu told reporters, adding that a date for their next meeting would be fixed later.
Since its last eruption in 1903, the 2,740-metre (9,042-foot) mountain has been dormant. But experts say it may have an active core, citing topographical signs and satellite images.
Geologist Yoon Sung-Hyo of Pusan National University told South Korea's Yonhap news agency last week that a massive release of sulphuric gas was detected from the mountain last November.
Yoon said it is almost impossible to predict when the volcano might erupt, but the South could provide monitoring equipment if the North allows access.
North Korea sources said Pyongyang had organized a special team to observe any volcanic activity since 2003.
"And they started to assemble the full-fledged research while working closely with Chinese authorities to monitor volcanic activities," one source said.
Concerns about the stability of Mount Paektu increased after a magnitude-7.3 earthquake hit northeastern China in 2002. Some experts say the North's underground nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009 may also have destabilised its core.
In the event of an eruption, a huge crater lake could overflow and deluge surrounding areas, in addition to other potentially massive damage.
Yun Yong-Gun, North Korea's chief delegate to the talks Tuesday, expressed concern at the radioactive leakage from the Japanese nuclear plant.
"We are actively watching for fear that radioactive contamination may reach us," he said, according to Yonhap.
Reported by RFA's Korean service. Translation by Albert Hong and Bong H. Park. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.