The talks in the border truce village of Panmunjom began shortly after the expiration of a North Korean deadline for Seoul to halt loudspeaker propaganda broadcasts across the border or face military action.
Despite scepticism that Pyongyang would follow through on its threat, the ultimatum raised border tensions to their highest level for years, with the North re-positioning artillery units and South Korean and US fighter jets flying simulated bombing runs.
The dialogue in Panmunjom, where the Korean War ceasefire was signed, offers a chance for both sides to step back, although analysts said finding a workable compromise would be difficult.
Seoul has refused to turn off the loudspeaker broadcasts until Pyongyang apologises for mine blasts this month that maimed two South Korean soldiers on border patrol.
North Korea denies any responsibility for the blasts and has accused the South of fabricating evidence of its involvement.
“It’s not easy to see a simple way out where neither side loses face,” said Dan Pinkston, Korea expert at the International Crisis Group in Seoul.
“It’ll be interesting to see if the North can bring something to the table — possibly a resumption of North-South family reunions — that will allow the South to turn the loudspeakers off,” Pinkston said.
The four delegates — two from each side — include the South Korean president’s national security adviser, Kim Kwan-Jin, and the man widely seen as North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un’s number two, Hwang Pyong-So.
The two men last met in October when Hwang, who is vice chairman of the North’s top military body, the National Defense Commission, led a delegation on the highest-level visit to the South for years.
Those talks ended with an agreement on resuming a high-level dialogue, which never actually got off the ground.
According to South Korea’s presidential Blue House, the request for talks came from the North, despite its aggressive rhetoric and military posturing of recent days.
On the orders of Kim Jong-Un, the North Korean People’s Army (KPA) has been in a “fully armed, wartime state” since Friday, while the foreign ministry in Pyongyang warned Saturday that the situation had “reached the brink of war” and was “hardly controllable”.
The international community has long experience of North Korea’s particularly aggressive brand of diplomatic brinkmanship, and the request for talks will confirm for many that this has largely been another exercise in attention-seeking by Pyongyang.
For the moment, there has been little sense of panic among ordinary South Koreans who have become largely inured over the years to the North’s regular — and regularly unrealised — threats of imminent war.
But the military has been on maximum alert, and US and South Korean jets flew simulated bombing sorties around midday Saturday in a clear show of defiance and force.
Thousands of South Korean civilians living on frontline border islands or near military propaganda units were evacuated from their homes to underground shelters as a preventive measure.
Still at war
Technically, the two Koreas have been at war for the past 65 years, as the 1950-53 Korean conflict ended with a ceasefire that was never ratified by a formal peace treaty.
Kim Jong-Un’s order to move to a war footing came after an exchange of artillery fire on Thursday that claimed no casualties but triggered a dangerous spike in cross-border tensions.
On Friday South Korean President Park Geun-Hye appeared on television, wearing army fatigues and telling top military commanders that further North Korean provocations “will not be tolerated”.
The situation is being closely watched, with UN chief Ban Ki-moon calling for restraint from both sides and the United States urging Pyongyang to avoid further escalation.
There are nearly 30,000 US troops permanently stationed in South Korea, and the US military’s top officer on Saturday reiterated Washington’s commitment to the defence of its ally.
A call for calm and restraint also came from China, the North’s main diplomatic protector and economic supporter.
Ties between Beijing and Pyongyang have become strained, and China will be keen to avoid any regional flare-up as it seeks to attract world leaders to Beijing next month for a three-day celebration of Japan’s defeat in World War II.
by Park Chan-Kyong