SEOUL, South Korea — South Korean officials headed to North Korea on Wednesday for their first Red Cross talks in nearly two years amid a push by the North to reach out to Seoul and Washington after months of provocations, including nuclear and missile tests.
The three-day meetings are aimed at organizing temporary reunions of families separated by Korea's division more than five decades ago. The sides had regularly held Red Cross talks to discuss family reunions and other humanitarian issues before the North suspended the meetings in anger over the conservative South Korean government's hard-line stance toward its regime.
North Korea's recent aggressive diplomatic outreach to South Korea and the U.S. follows a flurry of provocations earlier this year, including its second nuclear test in May and a barrage of ballistic missile launches.
Earlier this month, the North freed two American journalists sentenced to hard labor after former President Bill Clinton went on a mission to Pyongyang to secure their release. It also released a South Korean worker held for more than four months, agreed to lift restrictions on border crossings with the South, and pledged to resume suspended joint inter-Korean projects and the reunions of separated families.
Last week, a North Korean delegation traveled to Seoul to mourn the death of former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung.
On Tuesday, South Korean media reported that the communist nation had invited two top U.S. envoys to visit Pyongyang for the first nuclear talks since President Barack Obama took office, and that the U.S. government was strongly considering sending them next month.
However, U.S. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said later Tuesday that neither special envoy Stephen Bosworth nor nuclear negotiator Sung Kim had immediate plans to go to North Korea.
North Korea has long sought direct negotiations with Washington about its nuclear program and other issues, hoping to boost its international profile. The U.S. has said it is willing to talk bilaterally, but only within the framework of six-nation disarmament talks involving the two Koreas, the U.S., China, Russia and Japan.
The last Red Cross talks between the two Koreas were held in November 2007. Their ties deteriorated with the inauguration of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak early last year. Lee's infuriated North Korea by imposing tough policies such as linking aid to the North's nuclear disarmament, prompting it to cut off all reconciliation talks and most of their joint projects.
"Since it is a meeting being held after a year and nine months, the main topic is the dispersed family issue," chief South Korean delegate Kim Young-chol told reporters as he left for the North's Diamond Mountain resort for the talks. "In addition, we are planning to put efforts into discussing other humanitarian matters."
Millions of families were separated following the division of the Korean peninsula in 1945 and the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended with a cease-fire, not a peace treaty, leaving the two countries still technically at war.
More than 16,000 Koreans have met relatives in temporary reunions held under South Korea's two previous liberal presidents.
There are no mail, telephone or e-mail exchanges between ordinary citizens across the Korean border.
Associated Press writer Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.