PANMUNJOM, Korea, Jan. 9 (Joint Press Corps-Yonhap) -- North Korea on Tuesday accepted Seoul's proposal to hold military talks to reduce tensions and agreed to send a delegation to next month's Winter Olympics in the South, according to a joint press statement issued after their high-level talks.
In their first formal dialogue in two years at the border village of Panmunjom, they also agreed to reactivate cooperation and exchanges through diverse levels of talks including a high-level meeting, Seoul officials said.
The agreement marked a major breakthrough in the years of frosty ties between the two countries and in last year's heightened tensions over the North's nuclear and missile provocations.
North Korea offered to send high-ranking officials, cheerleaders, performing artists, taekwondo demonstration teams and journalists in addition to athletes. The South promised to provide them with necessary conveniences.
They will hold working-level talks to further discuss details of the North's participation.
The two Koreas also agreed to hold military talks to discuss ways to reduce border tensions, which Seoul proposed in July last year.
But South Korea's proposal to arrange reunions of families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War in February was not included in the press statement.
During the meeting, South Korea's chief delegate Cho Myoung-gyon raised the need to resume talks on North Korea's denuclearization. Ri Son-gwon, the North's chief delegate, is said to have made "strong" complaints about South Korean media reports that Tuesday's talks would deal with the North's nukes.
The meeting came after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un extended a rare offer of rapprochement to Seoul in his New Year's Day message. He expressed a willingness to send a delegation to the PyeongChang Olympics and said his country is open for dialogue.
North Korea accepted Seoul's dialogue offer Friday after the South and the United States agreed to postpone their military drills until after the Olympics. It also reopened a long-disconnected border hotline.
The talks came as North Korea is under tough international sanctions over its nuclear and missile provocations. It conducted its sixth nuclear test and fired three intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) last year.
The government of liberal President Moon Jae-in has voiced the hope that the North's participation in the games will help ease tensions on the divided peninsula that were sparked by the North's provocations.
Moon also hopes that better inter-Korean relations will pave the way for the resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue and for broader dialogue between the United States and the North.
"This meeting takes on significance in terms of restoring and developing inter-Korean ties. The two sides shared the need to upgrade our ties based on mutual respect," Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon, the South's chief delegate, told pool reporters at the truce village.
"South-North ties took their first step. As they have been strained for a long time, there are a lot tasks to do," he added.
An agreement on the Olympics was widely expected, given Kim Jong-un's New Year speech, but with regard to inter-Korean ties, there is still a long way to go, though Tuesday's meeting was the first step forward better relations, experts said.
Details over the North's Olympic participation, such as its delegation's travel route, accommodation and security issues, should be discussed at follow-up meetings.
If the land route across the heavily guarded border is chosen, there will have to be consultation between the military authorities of the two Koreas. North Korea re-opened a military hotline with the South, a move aimed at facilitating discussions on this issue.
The two sides came short of agreeing to march together under a unified Korean flag at the opening and closing ceremonies, but Seoul said that the two Koreas "got closer" on the issue of joint parades and cultural events.
Pyongyang did not elaborate on who would lead the "high-level" delegation, but experts here think the team may include political heavyweights such as Choe Ryong-hae, the de facto No. 2 official in the North.
Choe is blacklisted by South Korea's unilateral sanctions over North Korea's nuclear and missile provocations. Seoul's punitive actions do not cover travel bans, but it could prove controversial if North Korean officials on the blacklist come to the South.
Apparently mindful of such criticism, Seoul's foreign ministry said that the government may consider temporarily easing sanctions against the North, if needed, to enable North Korean officials to visit the South next month.
The failure to agree on holding reunions for divided families indicates how far apart the two sides stand on the issue.
Seoul is placing priority in resolving the problem of separated families, as more aging Koreans have passed away without being able to meet with their kin on the opposite side of the tense border.
About 55 percent of an estimated 131,260 South Koreans on the waiting list for reunion have already died. Data showed that 62 percent of South Koreans hoping for reunions are aged over 80. The last reunion event was held in October 2015.
Pyongyang has suggested conditions that could politicize the issue. In exchange for the reunions, it is demanding Seoul return 12 female North Korean workers who worked at a restaurant in China and defected to South Korea en masse in 2016. The South rejects the North's claim, saying that they defected of their own free will.
"It is meaningful that the PyeongChang Olympics could serve as an occasion for the two Koreas to seek further exploratory talks," said Kim Yeon-chul, a professor at Inje University.
He said that the government needs wisdom to lure the North into further dialogue to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue and called for steady efforts toward that goal.