North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, third left, poses with the South Korean delegation led by Chung Eui-yong, head of the presidential National Security Office, to Kim’s left, in Pyongyang, North Korea on March 6 2018. Picture: THE PRESIDENTIAL BLUE HOUSE/YONHAP VIA REUTERS
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, third left, poses with the South Korean delegation led by Chung Eui-yong, head of the presidential National Security Office, to Kim’s left, in Pyongyang, North Korea on March 6 2018. Picture: THE PRESIDENTIAL BLUE HOUSE/YONHAP VIA REUTERS

Seoul — North Korean leader Kim Jong-un met senior South Korean government officials for the first time and said it was his "firm will to vigorously advance" inter-Korean ties and pursue reunification, the North’s official news agency said on Tuesday.

His South Korean counterpart, President Moon Jae-in, said that even while Seoul engaged Pyongyang in dialogue, the military should focus "all its power" to boost its defence capabilities to counter North Korea’s missile and nuclear programmes.

"We must speak with the North for the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula but at the same time we should focus all our efforts to quickly, effectively create defences against North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes," Moon said in remarks at a military graduation ceremony on Tuesday.

Moon said he would further develop the joint defence system between South Korea and the US — which has been the subject of repeated complaints by the North.

A 10-member South Korean delegation led by National Security Office head Chung Eui-yong travelled to the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, on Monday hoping to encourage North Korea and the US to talk to one another.

Washington and Pyongyang have been at loggerheads for months over the North’s nuclear and missile programmes, with US President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un trading insults and threatening war.

Tension between the two Koreas eased during the recent Winter Olympics in South Korea, where Moon hosted a high-level North Korean delegation. Kim invited Moon to North Korea for a summit, which Moon said the two sides should work towards.

"Hearing the intention of President Moon Jae-in for a summit from the special envoy of the south side, (Kim Jong-un) exchanged views and made a satisfactory agreement," the North’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said of this week’s meeting.

The agency did not provide details on what that agreement was but an official from the presidential Blue House in Seoul said it partially addressed the summit offer made by the North.

North Korea has been developing nuclear-tipped missiles capable of reaching the US but Pyongyang and Washington both say they want a diplomatic solution.

Ease military tensions

Seoul’s delegation met Kim, his sister Kim Yo-jong, Kim’s wife and other officials on Monday, said Kim Eui-kyeom, a spokesman for the South’s presidential office.

Kim Yo-jong attended the Winter Olympics opening ceremony in February.

The delegation would wrap up a two-day trip to Pyongyang later on Tuesday after another meeting with North Korean officials, the spokesman said.

Blue House officials could not confirm whether Kim Jong-un would attend Tuesday’s meeting.

Chung said in Seoul before leaving on Monday that his team would deliver the South Korean president’s wish to bring about denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula and permanent peace.

Kim Jong-un gave orders for "practical steps" regarding the letter from Moon that was delivered to him by the delegation, KCNA said, without elaborating.

"He also made an exchange of in-depth views on the issues for easing the acute military tensions on the Korean Peninsula and activating the versatile dialogue, contact, co-operation and exchange," the report said.

Both North Korea and the US have said they are open to talks but the US position has been that dialogue must be aimed at North Korea’s denuclearisation, something Pyongyang has rejected.

The Pentagon nevertheless said it was "cautiously optimistic" about the North-South talks, which resumed in January for the first time in two years.

North Korea has vowed never to give up what it calls an essential deterrent against US hostility. Pyongyang has not carried out any nuclear or missile tests since November.

The Washington-based North Korea monitoring project, 38 North, said satellite images from last week indicated North Korea’s main nuclear reactor may be operating, meaning that it had resumed production of plutonium, presumably for its nuclear weapons programme.

Steam plumes were observed from the reactor in images from February 17 and 25 and that such vapour plumes had "generally been a useful indicator of reactor operations", 38 North said in a report on Monday.

However, the report said no cooling water discharges had been observed. That could mean the plumes were unrelated to reactor operations, or that the discharge pipeline had been extended into the nearby river in an attempt to disguise activity.

"The presence of ice melt on the river supports the conclusion that the reactor is indeed operating and that the outfall pipeline has been extended," it said.

Reuters