North and South Korean officials meet at the border (Los Angeles Times)

August 22, 2015

By Steven Borowiec and Jonathan Kaiman  

SEOUL, South Korea — North and South Korean officials met at a town on the heavily guarded border between the two countries Saturday in an attempt bid to ease tensions days after a volley of cross-border artillery fire put both countries’ armed forces on high alert.

Four high-ranking officials — two from the North and two from the South — met at the border truce village of Panmunjom on Saturday evening, according to local media.

North Korea warned Friday that it attack if South Korea did not stop blaring anti-North Korean propaganda from loudspeakers at the border by 5 p.m. Saturday. The deadline passed without any reported incidents, and the two sides met shortly afterward.

In mid-August, Seoul accused North Korean soldiers of sneaking across the border and planting mines near a military post. Seoul retaliated by activating the loudspeakers for the first time since 2004. On Thursday, North Korea fired a projectile at one of the loudspeakers, and South Korea fired dozens of artillery shells at the source of the attack.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has ordered the border region to enter a “semi state of war,” according to the state-run Korean Central News Agency.

South Korea sent national security director Kim Kwan-jin and Unification Minister Hong Yong-pyo as representatives to the talks, according to the Associated Press; the North sent Hwang Pyong-so, Kim’s top military aide, and Kim Yong-gon, a senior official responsible for South Korean affairs.

Local media ran photos of the four men smiling and shaking hands at the meeting’s outset. Some of the participants also attended talks in October when North Korean officials made a surprise visit to the South Korean city of Incheon, which was then hosting the Asian Games, a major sports event. The two sides have not held any high-level talks since.

Exchanges of harsh words between the two sides are not unusual, and experts generally downplay the possibility of serious conflict. In 2010, after North Korea shelled the South’s Yeonpyeong Island, many South Koreans criticized their government for what they perceived as a weak and ineffective response. Since then, South Korean officials often have made a point of pledging harsh responses to any North Korean incursions.

Though North Korea has military forces of more than 1 million, its military lacks the firepower and sophistication of the South Korean armed forces. About 28,500 U.S. troops are stationed in South Korea.

(Borowiec is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Kaiman reported from Beijing.)