South and North Korea held rare talks on Tuesday with Pyongyang announcing that it will send a delegation to next month’s Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.
Seoul for its part said it was ready to lift sanctions temporarily to facilitate the visit if needed.
North Korean officials at the first formal talks with South Korea in more than two years said their delegation for the Games would consist of athletes, high-ranking officials and a cheering squad.
The head of the North Korean delegation, Ri Son Gwon, said in opening remarks: “We came to this meeting today with the thought of giving our brethren, who have high hopes for this dialogue, invaluable results as the first present of the year ...”
North Korea entered the talks with a “serious and sincere stance”, said Ri, chairman of the North’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland.
South Korean Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon expressed optimism as the meeting began.
“Our talks began after North and South Korea were severed for a long time, but I believe the first step is half the trip,” said Cho. “It would be good for us to make that ‘good present’ you mentioned earlier.”
“Everything feels slightly new as we have not had talks in a while,” he said.
Later on Tuesday, South Korean media said North Korea has restored a military hotline with the South, in the second reopening of a suspended inter-Korean communication channel in about a week.
All major inter-Korean communication channels had been shut down amid animosities over the North's nuclear program in recent years. But North Korea reopened one of the channels last week as signs emerged of improving ties.
North Korean officials informed their South Korean counterparts of the reopening of the channel before midday, Vice Unification Minister Chun Hae-sung added.
The talks are being closely watched by world leaders eager for any sign of a reduction in tensions on the Korean peninsula amid rising fears over North Korea’s missile launches and development of nuclear weapons in defiance of United Nations Security Council resolutions.
South Korea has unilaterally banned several North Korean officials from entering the country in response to Pyongyang’s ramped-up missile and nuclear tests, conducted despite international pressure.
However, some South Korean officials have said they see the Olympics as a possible opportunity for easing tensions.
Foreign ministry spokesman Roh Kyu-deok said Seoul would consider whether it needed to take “prior steps”, together with the UN Security Council and other relevant countries, to help the North Koreans visit for the Olympics.
At Tuesday’s talks, the first since December 2015, Seoul proposed inter-Korean military discussions to reduce tensions on the Korean peninsula and a reunion of family members in time for February’s Lunar New Year holiday, Chun said.
South Korea also proposed that athletes from the two Koreas march together at the February 9-25 Games’ opening ceremony and other joint activities between during the Winter Olympics, Chun told reporters outside the talks.
Athletes from the two Koreas have paraded together at the opening and closing ceremonies of major international games before, although it has not been seen since the 2007 Asian Winter Games in China after relations chilled under nearly a decade of conservative rule in the South.
The meetings continued on Tuesday afternoon after the two sides broke up for separate lunches. Officials began speaking at 10 a.m. (0100 GMT) in the three-storey Peace House just across the demilitarized zone on the South Korean side of Panmunjom truce village.
“North Korea said that they are determined to make today’s talks fruitful, and make it a groundbreaking opportunity,” South Korea’s Chun said.
Chun also said the South Koreans proposed resuming negotiations over the North’s nuclear program, but there was no specific response from the North Koreans.
However, North Korean officials said during the meeting they were open to promoting reconciliation between the two countries through dialogue and negotiation, according to Chun.
The overall prospect for the negotiations was still unclear. The two Koreas have a long history of ending key talks without any agreement and failing to follow through with rapprochement accords.
Just before the delegation drove into the demilitarized zone, some 20 South Koreans were seen waving a banner that read: “We wish the success of the high-ranking inter-Korean talks”.
One man was spotted waving a flag with a unified Korean peninsula.
The delegations were made up of five senior officials from each side.
The North Korean delegation walked over the border inside the joint security area to the Peace House around 0030 GMT, an official from the South’s Unification Ministry told reporters.
The Koreas' first talks in two years were arranged after North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un recently made an abrupt push for improved ties with South Korea after a year of elevated tensions with the outside world over his expanding nuclear and missile programs. Critics say Kim may be trying to divide Seoul and Washington in a bid to weaken international pressure and sanctions on the North.
The United States, which has 28,500 troops stationed in South Korea as a legacy of the 1950-1953 Korean War, initially responded coolly to the idea of inter-Korean meetings, but US President Donald Trump later called the talks “a good thing”.
Trump has said he would like to see talks go beyond the Olympics. “At the appropriate time, we’ll get involved,” he said.
But UN Ambassador Nikki Haley later said the US administration isn't changing its conditions regarding talks with North Korea, saying Kim would first need to stop weapons testing for a "significant amount of time."
South Korean liberal President Moon Jae-in, who favors dialogue as a way to defuse the North Korean nuclear standoff, welcomed Kim's outreach and proposed talks at Panmunjom. Kim quickly accepted.
The International Olympic Committee said Monday it has "kept the door open" for North Korea to take part in the Games. IOC spokesman Mark Adams said the registration deadline has been extended and that the Switzerland-based committee supports North Korean athletes in the qualification process, while respecting UN sanctions against North Korea.