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Korea seeks to discuss divided families, easing tensions at inter-Korean talks

South Korea will seek to discuss ways to ease military tensions and reunite divided families during this week's high-level talks with North Korea, Seoul's chief delegate said Monday.

Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon made the remarks one day before South and North Korea will hold their first formal talks in more than two years to discuss the North's potential participation in the PyeongChang Winter Olympics and ways to improve their ties.

"Basically, the two sides will focus on the Olympics. When discussing inter-Korean relations, the government will seek to raise the issue of war-torn families and ways to ease military tensions," Cho told a group of reporters.

Cho will lead a five-member government delegation to the first inter-Korean dialogue since December 2015. The North's chief negotiator is Ri Son-gwon, the chairman of North Korea's state agency in charge of affairs with the South.

Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon. (Yonhap)
Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon. (Yonhap)

The South's delegation also includes Vice Unification Minister Chun Hae-sung, who had various experiences in inter-Korean talks. It marks the first time that the country's top point man on unification and vice minister are included together in a delegation.

"After this week's high-level talks, there will be the need to continue discussions at the working level. That's why the government made the composition of the delegation in such a way," the minister said.

Chang Ung, Pyongyang's sole IOC member, said in a meeting with reporters in an airport in Beijing that his country is "likely to participate" in the Winter Games slated for Feb. 9-25, according to foreign news reports.

"We will listen to what North Korea will say. We will make efforts to enable the North to take part in the games," Cho said.

The talks will begin at 10:00 a.m. and the two sides will craft detailed schedules though consultations, according to Seoul's unification ministry.

Baik Tae-hyun, the ministry spokesman, echoed Cho's remarks at a regular press briefing.

"The priority will be discussions over North Korea's possible participation in the PyeongChang Olympics and the Paralympics," he said. "We expect that discussions on inter-Korean relations will likely cover issues of mutual concern, particularly something that carries urgency, like Seoul's July proposal."

On July 17, 2016, the South proposed holding military talks on easing border tensions, and a Red Cross meeting to discuss reunions of divided families. North Korea has not responded to Seoul's offer.

Asked if North Korea's denuclearization issue could be discussed, the spokesman said, "The two Koreas plan to discuss Olympic cooperation and issues of mutual concern."

Baik also declined to elaborate when asked whether Seoul could raise North Korea's 2010 sinking of a South Korean warship during Tuesday's meeting.

Ri, who has a military background, is known as one of the closest aides to Kim Yong-chol, the head of the ruling party's United Front Department and former chief of North Korea's reconnaissance bureau.

Kim is suspected of having orchestrated Pyongyang's two deadly attacks on the South in 2010 -- the sinking of the Cheonan warship and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island. Ri rebutted Seoul's announcement that the North is behind the warship sinking at a press briefing in May of that year.

The government of liberal President Moon Jae-in has expressed hope that the North's participation will ease tensions on the divided peninsula, which have flared up due to North Korea's nuclear and missile provocations.

Moon also hopes that better inter-Korean relations will pave the way for the resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue and for broader talks between the United States and the North. (Yonhap)