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North, South Korea wrap up high-level talks

South Korean Vice Unification Minister Hwang Boo-gi (L), who serves as Seoul’s chief delegate for high-level talks with North Korea, shakes hands with his North Korean counterpart Jon Jong-su during their meeting at the Kaesong joint industrial zone on the North Korean side of the border on December 11, 2015. (AFP photo)

North and South Korea have wrapped up two days of rare high-level talks aimed at easing tensions between the neighbors.

The vice-minister-level negotiations were held Friday on the North Korean side of the border in the jointly-run Kaesong industrial zone, which opened in 2004 and has survived as a rare symbol of inter-Korean cooperation.

The two sides agreed upon extension of the negotiations after no breakthrough came out of the first day of discussions.

The talks focused on the resumption of cross-border tours as well as reunion gatherings of families separated by war.

Seoul has called for more reunions between aging family members separated by the Korean War more than half a century ago. Currently the reunions are being organized less than once a year and with only a very limited number of participants.

Pyongyang says South Korea should resume tours to its scenic Mount Kumgang resort, which Seoul suspended in 2008. Restarting the tours could provide a source of much-needed hard revenue for North Korea.

The negotiations are the latest in a series of measures to improve relations after a tense standoff that began in August, when two South Korean soldiers were seriously hurt by landmine explosions along the border. Pyongyang denied any role in the incident.

South Korea’s chief delegate Hwang Boo-gi, who also serves as the vice unification minister, earlier said that the talks were an opportunity to overcome the decades of mistrust and confrontation between the two Koreas.

“Let’s make efforts to break down the barrier, fill up the cracks and make a new and wide road together,” Hwang Boo-gi told his North Korean counterpart Jon Jong-su as they shook hands at the talks venue on Friday.

“Let’s take a crucial first step to pave the way for reunification. I hope various pending issues will be solved one by one,” Boo-gi said. 

The two Koreas remain technically at war because the 1950-1953 conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.

Among other thorny issues hindering Pyongyang-Seoul ties is the South’s annual drills with the United States. The North says the maneuvers are rehearsals for war.

South Korean soldiers gesture to vehicles on the road leading to North Korea's Kaesong joint industrial complex at a military checkpoint in the border city of Paju on August 21, 2015. (AFP photo)

Pyongyang regards the US meddling as the root cause of the escalating tension between the two Koreas.

The United States has more than 28,000 troops deployed in South Korea.

South Korea is also critical of its northern neighbor’s missile tests as well as what it calls nuclear threats, blaming Pyongyang for simmering tensions on the Korean Peninsula. North Korea says the tests are for defensive purposes.

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