Marathon Talks Bring the Two Koreas Back From the Brink of Conflict

korea-panmunjom-0824-2015.jpg South Korean soldiers ride a military truck on the road leading to the truce village of Panmunjom in the border city of Paju, August 24, 2015.

Senior officials of the two Koreas ended marathon talks on Tuesday with an agreement that appeared to ease a military standoff that many feared would escalate into armed conflict, both sides said.

The 30 hours of talks at the Korean War truce village at Panmunjom produced statements in which Pyongyang said it would end its threat to fire artillery at South Korea and expressed “regret” for August 4 mine explosions that maimed two South Korean soldiers and triggered the latest standoff on the troubled peninsula.

In return, South Korea agreed to suspend broadcasts condemning the Pyongyang regime from loudspeakers along the inter-Korean border. The crisis escalated after Pyongyang had fired shots in the direction of the speakers on August 20 and had threatened to hit them with artillery if Seoul did not halt the broadcasts by midday on August 22.

South Korea had demanded that North Korea apologize for the land mine attack as well as for firing of shells over the border to protest the loudspeaker broadcasts. The North expressed "regret" without acknowledging its role in the landmine incident, but Pyongyang said that it would end its declared “semi-state of war” after the South turned off the loudspeakers.

"It is very meaningful that from this meeting North Korea apologized for the landmine provocation and promised to work to prevent the recurrence of such events and ease tensions," Kim Kwan-jin, national security adviser to South Korean President Park Geun-hye, told a televised news briefing.

"The north and the south agreed to hold talks between their authorities in Pyongyang or Seoul at an early date to improve the north-south ties and have multi-faceted dialogue and negotiations in the future," North Korea said in a statement issued by its official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).

The two sides agreed to arrange reunions of separated families later this autumn and hold Red Cross working-level talks to arrange the meetings in September, KCNA said.

Cautious welcome

The high-level talks took place against the backdrop of annual U.S.-South Korean Ulchi Freedom Guardian military exercises. Meanwhile, South Korea reported that North Korea had moved towed artillery close to the border with the South and that Pyongyang had deployed more than 50 submarines from their bases.

The accord, which brought the two Koreas back from the verge of conflict, was welcomed by South Korea's ally the United States, and by the United Nations, which has imposed strict sanctions on North Korea over Pyongyang's repeated nuclear and missile tests.

"We're going to judge the North by its actions. We welcome this agreement, and are hopeful it leads to decreasing tensions on the peninsula," U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby told a regular news briefing in Washington.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, a former South Korean foreign minister, said he hoped the deal could create momentum to help manage other problems on the divided peninsula.

"I warmly welcome the news of an agreement reached between the Republic of Korea and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea today," Ban said in a statement.

Analysts in Washington gave the pact a cautious welcome.

"I think for now, the agreement should be enough to stabilize the situation," Scott Snyder, a senior fellow for Korea Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, told RFA's Korean Service.

"The question always is 'will this agreement persist or will it just be one more passing thing on the radar screen,' so we have to wait and see," Jonathan Pollack, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told RFA.

Reported by Albert Hong for RFA's Korean Service. Written in English by Paul Eckert.

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