July 31, 2018 / 3:24 AM / 17 days ago

Two Koreas discuss reducing military tension amid reports of North Korea missile activity

SEOUL (Reuters) - North and South Korea discussed reducing tension but didn’t announce any detailed agreements after military talks on Tuesday, while the United States detected renewed activity at a North Korean missile factory, casting more suspicion over the North’s intentions.

North Korean Lieutenant General An Ik San shakes hands with South Korean Major General Kim Do-gyun during a meeting at the Peace House of the border village of Panmunjom, South Korea, July 31, 2018. Yonhap via REUTERS

The meeting, the second since June and held in the border village of Panmunjom, was designed to follow on from an inter-Korean summit in April at which leaders of the two Koreas agreed to defuse tension and halt “all hostile acts”.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un also vowed during his separate summit with U.S. President Donald Trump in Singapore in June to work toward denuclearization, but there has been no concrete agreement to accomplish that goal. The North had pursued its nuclear and missile programs in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions and increasingly severe sanctions.

Generals from the two Koreas exchanged views on a possible cut in firearms and personnel to “demilitarize” the

heavily fortified demilitarized zone (DMZ), as well as joint excavation within the area of the remains of soldiers killed in the 1950-53 Korean War.

They also discussed ways to turn the skirmish-prone West Sea by ceasing firing exercises and withdrawing artillery along the shore, according to South Korea’s defense ministry.

But they did not agree on details, which will be further discussed through working-level talks, the ministry said.

The ministry said last week it plans to reduce guard posts and equipment along the heavily fortified border as an initial step.

North Korean Lieutenant General An Ik San walks with South Korean Major General Kim Do-gyun at the Peace House of the border village of Panmunjom, South Korea, July 31, 2018. Yonhap via REUTERS

The talks were meaningful in “creating understanding” in ways to implement the summit agreement, said Kim Do-gyun, the South’s chief negotiator who is in charge of North Korea policy at the ministry.

CRUCIAL TO LOWERING TENSION

Ahn Ik-san, the general leading the North Korean delegation at the military talks, said both sides agreed on “some issues”, without elaborating.

At the start of the meeting, Ahn noted South Korean news reports suggesting that he might try to persuade the South to push for a joint declaration with the United States to formally end the war.

“Before determining whether it is true or not, I realized the people of the North and South regard our talks as important,” Ahn said.

The Korean War ended in an armistice, not a peace treaty, leaving the U.S.-led United Nations forces, including South Korea, technically still at war with the North.

Pyongyang sees an official end to war as crucial to lowering tension. It accused U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo of making a “gangster-like” demand for denuclearization during his visit to Pyongyang earlier this month, while rejecting its wish to discuss declaring an end to the conflict.

The U.S. State Department has said it is committed to building a peace mechanism in place of the armistice when the North denuclearizes.

Chinese State Councillor Yang Jiechi had traveled to South Korea “not long ago” and held talks with Chung Eui-yong, Director of the National Security Office, Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told a regular news briefing on Tuesday,

Slideshow (3 Images)

The two discussed various bilateral issues, officials said, but neither Beijing, which supported North Korea in the war, nor Seoul confirmed whether they discussed a declaration ending the war.

A senior official at South Korea’s presidential Blue House said Seoul was open to China’s involvement in any peace agreement, but said no decisions had been made.

MISSILE ACTIVITY

On Monday, a senior U.S. official told Reuters that U.S. spy satellites had detected renewed activity at the North Korean factory that produced the country’s first intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the United States.

Pompeo said last week that North Korea was continuing to produce fuel for nuclear bombs.

Trump declared soon after his summit with Kim that North Korea no longer posed nuclear threats, but Pyongyang has offered no details on its plan to denuclearize and subsequent talks have not gone smoothly.

The North’s state media has in recent days chastised the South for failing to move more swiftly to improve inter-Korean relations while paying too much heed to Washington.

The Rodong Sinmun, North Korea’s official party newspaper, accused Seoul of “wasting time” waiting for sanctions to be lifted only after denuclearization is completed, without “taking a single action” on its own.

It called for steps to facilitate a restart of the previously jointly-run but now closed programs, such as the Kaesong Industrial Complex and tours to the North’s Mount Kumgang resort.

Seoul has said those projects can be resumed when there is progress on denuclearization and sanctions are eased.

North Korea’s propaganda website, Uriminjokkiri, also criticized South Korea for its stance of keeping sanctions, saying “sanctions and conversation cannot exist side by side”.

Reporting by Joyce Lee, Hyonhee Shin and Joint Press Corps, additional reporting by Michael Martina in Beijing; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore

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