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North and South Korea talks: Backing away from brink of war?

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Ahn Young-joon/AP

(Read caption) South Korean residents come out from a shelter as police officers stand guard in Yeoncheon, south of the demilitarized zone that divides the two Koreas on Saturday. South Korea and North Korea agreed Saturday to hold their first high-level talks in nearly a year at a border village to defuse mounting tensions that have pushed the rivals to the brink of a possible military confrontation.

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Two days after the countries traded artillery fire across their heavily armed border, North and South Korean officials met at a border village on Saturday, marking the first high-level talks in almost a year, according to The Associated Press.

No media organizations were present at the meeting in Panmunjom, a “truce village” inside the demilitarized zone, reported the BBC.

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But local outlets reported that the meeting involved senior aides to both Koreas’ leaders, including South Korea’s presidential national security director Kim Kwan-jin and North Korea’s Hwang Pyong-so.

Mr. Hwang is widely regarded as North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s second-in-command, according to the AP. 

The talks offer a sign of relief just a day after Kim Jong-un had declared North Korea in “a semi state of war,” calling on soldiers to be “fully battle ready,” according to Pyongyang's official Korean Central News Agency.

As TV news showed young people swarming to military recruitment centers in North Korea, Pyongyang’s Foreign Ministry put out a statement Friday, according to the AP. “We have exercised our self-restraint for decades,” it said. "Now, no one's talk about self-restraint is helpful to putting the situation under control. The army and people of the DPRK are poised not just to counteract or make any retaliation, but not to rule out all-out war to protect the social system, their own choice, at the risk of their lives."

But then, a turnaround seemed to occur: On Friday afternoon, North Korean officials proposed to Seoul that a meeting be held with them behind closed doors. 

The Koreas had crept perilously close to the brink of war this week as artillery was fired from both sides Thursday, escalating tensions that had been building from anti-DPRK broadcasts Seoul had recently restarted.

Those propaganda announcements – blared from 11 loudspeaker systems along the world’s most heavily armed border – had in turn stemmed from a dispute over North Korea’s role in land mine explosions earlier this month that maimed two South Korean soldiers. 

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Hostility had also been brewing over South Korea’s annual military drills with the US, which Pyongyang has called a rehearsal for invasion.

As both Koreas meet now, the AP reports:

An official from South Korea's Defense Ministry, who didn't want to be named because of office rules, said that the South would continue with the anti-Pyongyang broadcasts during the meeting and would make a decision on whether to halt them depending on the result of the talks.

Given that discussions Saturday began on such shaky ground, knowledgable observers say it’s too soon to tell whether a resolution will be found quickly.

“The difficulty is that they cannot even agree on the facts of the events which led to the current state of heightened tension,” wrote Steve Evans, BBC’s Korea correspondent. “The talks will not diminish the fierceness of the rhetoric between the two halves of Korea, but they may find a way for both sides to walk away safely from a dangerous situation before it explodes.”