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Warm smiles on cold frontier

South Korea Unification Minister Cho Myung-Gyun (L) shakes hands with North Korean chief delegate Ri Son-Gwon (R) during their meeting at the border truce village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) dividing the two Koreas on January 9, 2018. North and South Korea began their first official talks in more than two years on January 9, focussing on the forthcoming Winter Olympics after months of tensions over Pyongyang's nuclear weapons programme.

[SEOUL] North and South Korean officials exchanged warm greetings amid light flakes of snow on the world's last Cold War frontier Tuesday, in contrast from previous frosty gatherings.

The delegates shook hands and even cracked a joke as they posed for photographers at the border truce village of Panmunjom, before starting talks focused on the North's participation at next month's Winter Olympics in the South.

"We have to curry favour with them," the North's chief delegate Ri Son-Gwon quipped as he shook hands with his Southern counterpart Cho Myoung-Gyon for a second time at the request of photographers.

The pair broke the ice with small talk about meteorological conditions.

"Despite the cold weather, the people's burning desire to see inter-Korean dialogue and rapprochement are like streams flowing beneath the ice," said a poetic Ri.

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Mr Ri, the head of the North's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea, and his colleagues walked across the concrete blocks that delineate the Military Demarcation Line at Panmunjom.

South Korean troops stood aside as they crunched over the gravel that separates the zone's emblematic blue huts.

Mr Ri donned civilian clothes for the meeting - and, in keeping with social norms in his country, a lapel badge depicting the North's founding father Kim Il-Sung and his son and successor Kim Jong-Il.

Mr Ri is said to be close to Kim Yong-Chul, another top North Korean military official and former director of the Reconnaissance General Bureau, the North's spy agency, who is blacklisted by South Korea's unilateral sanctions.

In the past Mr Ri has worn military uniform for talks. He angrily stormed out of one meeting minutes after it began, denying any role by his country in the 2010 sinking of a South Korean warship with the loss of 46 lives.

But on Tuesday he suggested the talks be fully opened to the media, "in light of the great expectations and huge interest from here and abroad in these talks".

Cho Myoung-Gyon, the leader of the Seoul's delegation - who wore a badge with the South Korean flag - demurred.

The two five-strong delegations sat opposite each other at a long table in the Peace House, the talks venue on the southern side of the Demilitarised Zone that splits the peninsula.

Mr Cho, the South's Unification Minister in charge of relations with the North, is a veteran cross-border negotiator who has taken part in talks with the North since the 1990s, including their second and last summit in 2007.

"It looks like North Korea is exuding a lot of confidence," said Koo Kab-Woo, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.

"I can't say exactly where that confidence stems from but it has so far been positive," he told AFP.

It was a markedly different atmosphere to the last talks between the two Koreas in December 2015, observers said. The mood then was grim and tense before the encounter even got under way. Talks broke down with the two sides failing even to agree on further meetings.


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