SEOUL – The leaders of North and South Korea have not met for the last eight years, but the marathon 44-hour talks that brought the bitter rivals back from the brink of conflict was effectively a summit by proxy.
They were not in the room, but the North’s Kim Jong Un and the South’s President Park Geun-hye might as well have been talking to each other in the unprecedented round-the-clock discussions, which ended early Tuesday.
As their top aides haggled in a three-story building on the South Korean side of the heavily militarized border, proceedings were linked live by video to both the presidential Blue House in Seoul and to Pyongyang, said South Korean officials briefed on the closed-door talks.
Thanks to improved communications and strategic breaks, the two leaders were able to monitor the session and issue instructions. By the close, the two sides hammered out a pact that ended a standoff that last week had included an exchange of artillery fire in one of the world’s most dangerous flash points.
“This can be seen as a virtual summit, as the whole process was controlled and observed by the two leaders,” said Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea specialist at Dongguk University in Seoul. “This kind of last-minute meeting between South and North Korea, with the backdrop of combat posture raised to the maximum level, was unprecedented.”
A South Korean official who was aware of what transpired added: “There were instructions from the Blue House throughout the contact. It would have been pretty much the same from the North also.”
Despite the success of the meeting, there was no immediate sign that a proper summit was on the cards. At best, analysts said, it meant there was hope that frayed ties on the peninsula could be restored.
“If this becomes the foundation for reopening a channel of dialogue so that there can be follow-up discussions, it will be credited for restoring inter-Korean relations,” said Yang Moo-jin of University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.
The last time leaders of the two sides met was in 2007, only the second such meeting since the 1950-53 Korean War. Relations have steadily deteriorated since the last summit. By the time Kim Jong Un took over after his father’s death in 2011 and Park was elected in 2013, ties were decidedly frosty.
Although the North has hurled vitriolic abuse at Park since she became president, it sent some of its top negotiators to the meeting in the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas.
Pyongyang’s delegation was led by Hwang Pyong So, the top military aide to the North’s young leader; and Kim Yang Gon, a senior Workers’ Party official. Both are veterans of inter-Korean affairs dating to the “sunshine policy” decade of warmer ties, which ended in 2008.
Seoul was represented by Kim Kwan-jin, Park’s national security adviser and a career soldier with little experience in inter-Korean diplomacy; and Unification Minister Hong Yong-pyo, an Oxford-trained scholar who took his current post in February.
The talks were the most substantial diplomatic engagement between the Koreas since the 2007 summit, given the seniority of the participants, the close involvement of the leadership and the duration of the talks, analysts said.
The quartet faced off across a wooden table on the second floor of the Peace House, an imposing structure on South Korea’s side of the Panmunjom truce village straddling the border.
The talks were hastily called on Saturday following an exchange of artillery fire on Thursday and a preceding the 5 p.m. deadline that had been set by the North for the South to stop propaganda broadcasts across the border or face military action.
The discussions began at 6 p.m. and broke Sunday morning before resuming that afternoon for a marathon stretch that ran into early Tuesday.
There were breaks when participants took catnaps in chairs in back rooms, South Korean media said. The negotiators also took showers to freshen up, the reports said, and on Tuesday the South’s Hong had changed into the spare starched shirt he had been seen taking to the border village.
The South Korean delegation ate short meals of instant noodles or box lunches brought to the Peace House from a nearby military base, South Korean media reported. The North Korean officials would retreat to one of the buildings on their side of the village for meals.
The trips were likely intended for rest as well as to receive communication from Pyongyang, the South Korean official said.
Phones and faxes at Peace House are eavesdrop-proof, with coding of voice signals to thwart wiretaps, the South Korea-based Joongang Ilbo newspaper said, citing a government source. But the North Koreans crossed to their own side to communicate.