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Seoul to halt broadcasts as North Korea 'regrets' mine blast casualties

Published 24/08/2015

South Korean army soldiers stand guard on Unification Bridge, which leads to the demilitarised zone, near Panmunjom (AP)
South Korean army soldiers stand guard on Unification Bridge, which leads to the demilitarised zone, near Panmunjom (AP)

South Korea says it has agreed to halt propaganda broadcasts at noon after North Korea expressed regret over a recent land mine blast that maimed two South Korean troops.

South Korean presidential security adviser Kim Kwan-jin made the announcement in a televised briefing early on Tuesday, after more than 30 hours of talks with North Korea ended.

The talks were the second round of negotiations the rival Koreas began on Saturday after events at their heavily guarded border pushed them to the brink of a possible military confrontation.

Mr Kim says the two Koreas have also agreed to hold talks to improve their ties soon in either Seoul or Pyongyang.

During the talks at the border village of Panmunjom, North Korea also agreed to lift a "quasi-state of war" that it had declared last week, chief South Korean negotiator and presidential security adviser Kim Kwan-jin told a televised briefing.

Mr Kim said the two Koreas have also agreed to resume reunions of families separated by war in September. He said the countries will hold talks to improve their ties soon in either Seoul or Pyongyang.

The North's Korean Central News Agency also released the same details.

The announcement came after the second round of negotiations the rivals began on Saturday after events at their heavily guarded border pushed them towards a possible military confrontation.

Both sides had wanted a face-saving way to avoid an escalation that could lead to bloodshed, especially the North, which is outmatched militarily by Seoul and its ally, the United States.

The announcement came after South Korean president Park Geun-hye on Monday said that without a clear North Korean apology for the mine attack that maimed two soldiers, the anti-Pyongyang propaganda broadcasts that infuriate the North would continue.

South Korean (bottom) and North Korean (top) guard posts are seen on either side of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea in Paju on August 24, 2015. South Korea's president hardened her line with North Korea on August 24, demanding an unequivocal apology for recent provocations as the two rivals struggled to negotiate their way out of a dangerous military standoff. AFP/Getty Images
South Korean (bottom) and North Korean (top) guard posts are seen on either side of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea in Paju on August 24, 2015. South Korea's president hardened her line with North Korea on August 24, demanding an unequivocal apology for recent provocations as the two rivals struggled to negotiate their way out of a dangerous military standoff. AFP/Getty Images
Anti-North Korean activists holds signs and shout slogans against the North as they stand on the Unification Bridge that leads to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea in Paju on August 24, 2015. South Korea's president hardened her line with North Korea on August 24, demanding an unequivocal apology for recent provocations as the two rivals struggled to negotiate their way out of a dangerous military standoff. AFP PHOTO / Ed JonesED JONES/AFP/Getty Images
Anti-North Korean activists holds signs of the North's leader, Kim Jong-Un (C), as they stand on the Unification Bridge that leads to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea in Paju on August 24, 2015. South Korea's president hardened her line with North Korea on August 24, demanding an unequivocal apology for recent provocations as the two rivals struggled to negotiate their way out of a dangerous military standoff. AFP PHOTO / Ed JonesED JONES/AFP/Getty Images
Television crews gather at a checkpoint on the Unification Bridge that leads to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea in Paju on August 23, 2015. North and South Korea resumed top-level talks on August 23 on avoiding a threatened military clash, even as Seoul accused Pyongyang of undermining the process with provocative naval and land deployments. AFP PHOTO / Ed JonesED JONES/AFP/Getty Images
PANMUNJON, SOUTH KOREA - AUGUST 22: In this handout image provided by South Korean Unification Ministry, South Korean National Security Adviser Kim Kwan-Jin (R), South Korean Unification Minister Hong Yong-Pyo (2nd R), Kim Yang-Gon (2nd L), the top North Korean official in charge of inter-Korean affairs, and Hwang Pyong-So (L) the North Korean military's top political officer, shake hands during the inter-Korean high-level talks at the truce village of Panmunjom inside the Demilitarized Zone on August 22, 2015. (Photo by South Korean Unification Ministry via Getty Images)
South Korean soldiers ride military trucks on the road leading to the truce village of Panmunjom in the border city of Paju on August 23, 2015. North and South Korea resumed top-level crisis talks on August 23 on avoiding a threatened military clash, even as Seoul accused Pyongyang of undermining the process with renewed naval and land deployments. REPUBLIC OF KOREA OUT NO ARCHIVES NO INTERNET RESTRICTED TO SUBSCRIPTION USE AFP PHOTO / YONHAPYONHAP/AFP/Getty Images
South Korean Marines patrol on the South-controlled island of Yeonpyeong near the disputed waters of the Yellow Sea at dawn on August 23, 2015. North and South Korea agreed to a second round of talks on August 23 after marathon, night-long negotiations fell short of resolving a crisis that has pushed them to the brink of armed conflict. REPUBLIC OF KOREA OUT NO ARCHIVES NO INTERNET RESTRICTED TO SUBSCRIPTION USE AFP PHOTO / YONHAPYONHAP/AFP/Getty Images
South Korean marines patrol along on Yeonpyeong island, South Korea, Sunday, Aug. 23, 2015. Senior officials from North and South Korea resumed a second round of talks on Sunday that temporarily pushed aside vows of imminent war on the peninsula. South Korea's presidential office said the talks restarted in the border village of Panmunjom. The delegates failed to reach an agreement in Saturday's marathon talks that stretched into the early hours of Sunday, and it was still unclear whether diplomacy would defuse what has become the most serious confrontation in years. (Yun Tae-hyun/ Yonhap via AP) KOREA OUT
South Korean soldiers ride military trucks on the road leading to the truce village of Panmunjom in the border city of Paju on August 23, 2015. North and South Korea resumed top-level crisis talks on August 23 on avoiding a threatened military clash, even as Seoul accused Pyongyang of undermining the process with renewed naval and land deployments. REPUBLIC OF KOREA OUT NO ARCHIVES NO INTERNET RESTRICTED TO SUBSCRIPTION USE AFP PHOTO / YONHAPYONHAP/AFP/Getty Images
A South Korean Army multiple rocket launch system is set in the border county of Yeoncheon, northeast of Seoul, on August 23, 2015. North and South Korea agreed to a second round of talks on August 23 after marathon, night-long negotiations fell short of resolving a crisis that has pushed them to the brink of armed conflict. REPUBLIC OF KOREA OUT NO ARCHIVES NO INTERNET RESTRICTED TO SUBSCRIPTION USE AFP PHOTO / YONHAPYONHAP/AFP/Getty Images
A South Korean amy soldier walks as his colleague soldiers stand guard on Unification Bridge, which leads to the demilitarized zone, near the border village of Panmunjom in Paju, South Korea, Sunday, Aug. 23, 2015. The first high-level talks in nearly a year between South Korea and North Korea were adjourned after stretching into the early hours of Sunday, as the rivals looked to defuse mounting tensions that have pushed them to the brink of a possible military confrontation. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)
A South Korean Army multiple rocket launch system is set in the border county of Yeoncheon, northeast of Seoul, on August 23, 2015. North and South Korea agreed to a second round of talks on August 23 after marathon, night-long negotiations fell short of resolving a crisis that has pushed them to the brink of armed conflict. REPUBLIC OF KOREA OUT NO ARCHIVES NO INTERNET RESTRICTED TO SUBSCRIPTION USE AFP PHOTO / YONHAPYONHAP/AFP/Getty Images
South Korean army soldiers ride on a truck in Paju, south of the demilitarized zone that divides the two Koreas, South Korea, Monday, Aug. 24, 2015. Marathon negotiations by senior officials from the Koreas stretched into a third day on Monday as the rivals tried to pull back from the brink. South Korea's military, meanwhile, said North Korea continued to prepare for a fight, moving unusual numbers of troops, hovercraft and submarines to the border. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)
South Korean soldiers ride military trucks on the road leading to the truce village of Panmunjom in the border city of Paju on August 23, 2015. North and South Korea resumed top-level crisis talks on August 23 on avoiding a threatened military clash, even as Seoul accused Pyongyang of undermining the process with renewed naval and land deployments. REPUBLIC OF KOREA OUT NO ARCHIVES NO INTERNET RESTRICTED TO SUBSCRIPTION USE AFP PHOTO / YONHAPYONHAP/AFP/Getty Images
Anti-North Korean activists shout slogans as they protest on the Unification Bridge that leads to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea in Paju on August 24, 2015. South Korea's president hardened her line with North Korea on August 24, demanding an unequivocal apology for recent provocations as the two rivals struggled to negotiate their way out of a dangerous military standoff. AFP PHOTO / Ed JonesED JONES/AFP/Getty Images
Anti-North Korean activists (C) struggle with police as they protest on the Unification Bridge that leads to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea in Paju on August 24, 2015. South Korea's president hardened her line with North Korea on August 24, demanding an unequivocal apology for recent provocations as the two rivals struggled to negotiate their way out of a dangerous military standoff. AFP PHOTO / Ed JonesED JONES/AFP/Getty Images
A North Korean soldier stands outside a guard post, seen from the South side of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating North and South Korea in Paju on August 24, 2015. South Korea's president hardened her line with North Korea on August 24, demanding an unequivocal apology for recent provocations as the two rivals struggled to negotiate their way out of a dangerous military standoff. REPUBLIC OF KOREA OUT NO ARCHIVES RESTRICTED TO SUBSCRIPTION USE AFP PHOTO / YONHAPYONHAP/AFP/Getty Images
South Korea soldiers stand on the Unification Bridge that leads to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea in Paju on August 24, 2015. South Korea's president hardened her line with North Korea on August 24, demanding an unequivocal apology for recent provocations as the two rivals struggled to negotiate their way out of a dangerous military standoff. AFP PHOTO / Ed JonesED JONES/AFP/Getty Images

Mr Kim said the loudspeaker campaign, which began after the blast, would stop at noon on Tuesday unless an "abnormal" event happens.

Pyongyang had denied involvement in the land mine explosions and rejected Seoul's report that Pyongyang launched an artillery barrage last week. It was not clear whether North Korea's expression of regret meant it was now admitting its involvement.

Even as the two countries held talks over the weekend, South Korea's military said North Korea continued to prepare for a fight, moving unusual numbers of troops and submarines to the border.

These were the highest-level talks between the two Koreas in a year. Just the fact that senior officials from countries that have spent recent days vowing to destroy each other were sitting together at a table in Panmunjom, the border enclave where the 1953 armistice ending fighting in the Korean War was agreed to, was something of a victory.

The length of the talks was not unusual. While the Koreas often have difficulty agreeing to talks, once they do, overlong sessions are often the rule. After decades of animosity and bloodshed, finding common ground is a challenge.

The decision to hold talks came hours ahead of a Saturday deadline set by North Korea for the South to dismantle the propaganda loudspeakers. North Korea had declared that its frontline troops were in full war readiness and prepared to go to battle if Seoul did not back down.

An official from Seoul's defence ministry said about 70% of the North's more than 70 submarines and undersea vehicles had left their bases and were undetectable by the South Korean military as of Saturday. The official also said the North had doubled the strength of its frontline artillery forces since the start of the talks on Saturday evening.

It was not known whether North Korea pulled back troops from the border after the agreement was announced.

The standoff started with the explosions of land mines on the southern side of the Demilitarised Zone between the Koreas that Seoul says were planted by North Korea. In response, the South resumed anti-Pyongyang propaganda broadcasts for the first time in 11 years, infuriating the North, which is extremely sensitive to any criticism of its authoritarian system.

Analysts said the North fears that the broadcasts could demoralise its frontline troops and inspire them to defect.

On Thursday, South Korea's military fired dozens of artillery rounds across the border in response to what Seoul said were North Korean artillery strikes meant to back up an earlier threat to attack the loudspeakers.

At the talks, Mr Kim and unification minister Hong Yong-pyo sat down with Hwang Pyong So, the top political officer for the Korean People's Army, and Kim Yang Gon, a senior North Korean official responsible for South Korean affairs. Mr Hwang is considered by outside analysts to be North Korea's second most important official after supreme leader Kim Jong Un.

UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon quickly issued a statement welcoming the news of an agreement and stressing the importance of its full implementation.

"I strongly encourage humanitarian measures such as reunions of separated families to be regularised without being subject to political and security considerations," Mr Ban said. "I further hope that this hard-won momentum for inter-Korean dialogue will lead to the resumption of talks for addressing the nuclear issue."

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