South Korea has proposed to hold military talks with the North this week in an effort to end animosities along their tense border, in what could mark the first official inter-Korean negotiations since late 2015.
The South’s Defense Ministry on Monday proposed the meeting to be held on Friday at the border truce village of Panmunjom, which also hosted the last such negotiations in December 2015.
“We request military talks with the North on July 21 at Tongilgak to stop all hostile activities that raise military tension at the military demarcation line,” said South Korea’s Vice Defense Minister Suh Choo-suk.
This is Seoul’s first proposal for government-level talks with Pyongyang since President Moon Jae-in came to power in May. Moon declared his willingness to work for peace with North Korea following his inauguration. He has been known as an advocate of engagement with Pyongyang.
Seoul’s offer of the rare talks comes after North Korea said earlier this month that it had successfully test-fired its first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and acquired the technology to load the projectile with a nuclear warhead. The South and the US disputed the claim.
In a separate proposal, the South Korean Red Cross offered to hold discussions with the North over reunions of families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War on August 1 at the same place.
Speaking at a news briefing, the South’s Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon said “talks and cooperation between the two Koreas to ease tension and bring about peace on the Korean peninsula will be instrumental for pushing forth a mutual, virtuous cycle for inter-Korea relations and North Korea’s nuclear problem.”
Relations between the two neighbors have been characterized by consistent tension. The two Koreas fought a war in the early 1950s, and have been at odds ever since the war ended.
Millions of families were separated and many died without getting a chance to reunify with their families on the other side of the border, across which all civilian communication is banned.
The North has repeatedly announced its refusal to hold family reunion talks with Seoul, unless the South returns 13 people who Pyongyang says are abducted. Seoul however says the group—12 waitresses and a restaurant manager— had defected to the South last year.
In recent years, Seoul and its ally Washington have expressed deep concerns about the North’s missile and nuclear programs.
The North, which is currently under a raft of crippling United Nations sanctions over its military programs, says it will continue the programs until the US ends its hostility toward the country.
The US maintains almost 29,000 military servicemen stationed in South Korea, claiming they act as deterrence against potential aggression from North Korea.
Washington and Seoul have further angered Pyongyang by the controversial deployment of the so-called Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system to the restive peninsula to counter what they call the North’s “threats.”