SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea is prepared to discuss its sanctions against the North in a rare meeting with Pyongyang officials, a sign of flexibility as the South’s Park Geun-hye seeks to reenergize her presidency with a breakthrough in bilateral ties.
The opportunity comes after a delegation headed by Hwang Pyong So, believed to be the second highest-ranking official in Pyongyang outside the family of leader Kim Jong Un, visited the closing ceremony of the Asian Games in Incheon, west of Seoul, last week with less than 24 hours’ notice.
While the Pyongyang delegation rebuffed an offer to meet Park, they met her prime minister and other officials and agreed to further talks by early November.
It was the strongest signal in years from the unpredictable North that it was willing to engage with the South. Both sides have been technically at war since the 1950s, and ties have been poor in recent years after Seoul accused the North of torpedoing one of its navy ships and the North embarked on a program of nuclear tests and rocket launches.
A senior government official said the South wants to discuss topics at the upcoming meeting that could fast-track improving relations.
“When the talks resume, we’ll be talking about sanctions and family reunions,” said the official, who is familiar with issues around the North Koreans’ visit but declined to be named.
Willingness to discuss sanctions implies flexibility and possible easing on the South’s part, although the official did not give details. The sanctions are a broad set of bans Seoul imposed on Pyongyang in 2010 following the torpedo attack on a South Korean corvette that killed 46 sailors.
South Korea blamed the North. Pyongyang flatly denied it was responsible, and the issue has been an obstacle to re-engagement ever since.
Park came to power last year on a platform that included working towards unification but has so far achieved little given the frosty state of affairs. The North’s state media has occasionally hurled personal invective at her.
She had advocated a policy of “trustpolitik”, or gradually increasing contact between the two Koreas that would be a stepping stone for greater engagement and eventually unification.
If Park manages a breakthrough in relations with isolated Pyongyang, it would be a signal achievement for a presidency that has been dogged by the government’s handling of the April ferry disaster in South Korea that killed about 300 people.
Former South Korean Foreign Minister Yoon Young-kwan, who served during a period of active negotiations on the North’s nuclear program, noted that Kim Jong Un, the third-generation leader of the hereditary dictatorship in Pyongyang, wants to make a mark for himself with the economy. His father, by comparison, had a military-first policy.
“It is up to the government how to use this opportunity,” Yoon said.
Support in South Korea for unification remains strong, with 76 percent of people in a July poll favoring it.
However, the anticipated cost of merging with the impoverished North - estimated as high as $700 billion over 18 years according to a South Korean think tank - causes many in the South to cringe at the prospect of a near-term unification, preferring instead a gradual process.
Park’s party has said the time has come to make a start.
“It’s time for the government and this party to make sure the kindling of light isn’t blown out and we work in a bold way for improving ties with the North,” the ruling Saenuri Party leader Kim Moo-sung told a party meeting this week.
Saenuri members are also discussing lifting the 2010 sanctions, which the government has until now said will remain in place until the North apologizes for the attack on the navy ship.
The liberal opposition Democratic Party has called for an immediate lifting of the measure.
Meanwhile, theories abound in Seoul as to why the North would have chosen to send a senior delegation to the South at this juncture: one holds that Pyongyang is trying to assert some sort of advantage by making a first move, a tack it has pursued previously, only to follow with a provocation.
Pyongyang could also be trying to convey that all is normal within its leadership amid rampant speculation over the health and whereabouts of Kim Jong Un, who has not been seen in state media for more than a month.
It may also just have been about sports, which the 31-year-old Kim has made a focus of his tenure. North Korea finished a respectable 7th in the medals table in Incheon, a performance it played for maximum propaganda value at home.
Throughout the 12-hour visit by the delegation, which also included senior Workers’ Party officials Kim Yang Gon and Choe Ryong Hae, the atmosphere was friendly.
“For people who are basically strangers sitting down to eat, the mood was good. There were jokes and talk about the Asian Games,” said a South Korean official with direct knowledge of the visit, adding that Sansachun, a local liquor, was served.
“Kim Yang Gon talked about the two sides meeting more often, that we really needed to meet if we were to work things out.”
For Park, re-engagement presents an opportunity to follow-up on her landmark 2002 private visit to Pyongyang, where she met Kim Jong Il, the current leader’s father.
But any move towards rapprochement carries risks.
Five years ago, another delegation from Pyongyang was given a cool reception by then-President Lee Myung-bak, a hardliner who bluntly told his guests at the presidential Blue House: “Bad behavior will not be rewarded.”
Six months later, the South Korean ship was torpedoed.
“If the high-level dialogue goes well, and we have the family reunions, and the North takes proactive actions that allows for the (sanctions) to be lifted, in that very hopeful scenario, then there can be some meaningful progress,” Kookmin University professor Hong Sung-gul said.
“If not we might be looking at the same set of mistakes we made before.”
Additional reporting by Ju-min Park, Sohee Kim and Kahyun Yang; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan