Seoul: North and South Korea discussed reducing tension but didn't announce any detailed agreements after military talks on Tuesday, while the United States detected renewed activity at a North Korean missile factory, casting more suspicion over the North's intentions.
The meeting, the second since June and held in the border village of Panmunjom, was designed to follow on from an inter-Korean summit in April at which leaders of the two Koreas agreed to defuse tension and halt "all hostile acts".
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un also vowed during his separate summit with US President Donald Trump in Singapore in June to work toward denuclearisation, but there has been no concrete agreement to accomplish that goal.
The North had pursued its nuclear and missile programmes in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions and increasingly severe sanctions. Generals from the two Koreas exchanged views on a possible cut in firearms and personnel to "demilitarise" the heavily fortified demilitarised zone (DMZ), as well as joint excavation within the area of the remains of soldiers killed in the 1950-53 Korean War.
They also discussed ways to turn the skirmish-prone West Sea by ceasing firing exercises and withdrawing artillery along the shore, according to South Korea's defence ministry.
But they did not agree on details, which will be further discussed through working-level talks, the ministry said.
The ministry said last week it plans to reduce guard posts and equipment along the heavily fortified border as an initial step.
The talks were meaningful in "creating understanding" in ways to implement the summit agreement, said Kim Do-gyun, the South's chief negotiator who is in charge of North Korea policy at the ministry.
Ahn Ik-san, the general leading the North Korean delegation at the military talks, said both sides agreed on "some issues", without elaborating. At the start of the meeting, Ahn noted South Korean news reports suggesting that he might try to persuade the South to push for a joint declaration with the United States to formally end the war.
"Before determining whether it is true or not, I realised the people of the North and South regard our talks as important," Ahn said.
The Korean War ended in an armistice, not a peace treaty, leaving the US-led United Nations forces, including South Korea, technically still at war with the North.
Pyongyang sees an official end to war as crucial to lowering tension.
It accused US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo of making a "gangster-like" demand for denuclearisation during his visit to Pyongyang earlier this month, while rejecting its wish to discuss declaring an end to the conflict.
The US State Department has said it is committed to building a peace mechanism in place of the armistice when the North denuclearises. Chinese State Councillor Yang Jiechi had travelled to South Korea "not long ago" and held talks with Chung Eui-yong, Director of the National Security Office, Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told a regular news briefing on Tuesday.
The two discussed various bilateral issues, officials said, but neither Beijing, which supported North Korea in the war, nor Seoul confirmed whether they discussed a declaration ending the war.
A senior official at South Korea's presidential Blue House said Seoul was open to China's involvement in any peace agreement, but said no decisions had been made.
On Monday, a senior US official told Reuters that US spy satellites had detected renewed activity at the North Korean factory that produced the country's first intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the United States.
Pompeo said last week that North Korea was continuing to produce fuel for nuclear bombs.
Trump declared soon after his summit with Kim that North Korea no longer posed nuclear threats, but Pyongyang has offered no details on its plan to denuclearise and subsequent talks have not gone smoothly.
The North's state media has in recent days chastised the South for failing to move more swiftly to improve inter-Korean relations while paying too much heed to Washington.
The Rodong Sinmun, North Korea's official party newspaper, accused Seoul of "wasting time" waiting for sanctions to be lifted only after denuclearisation is completed, without "taking a single action" on its own.
It called for steps to facilitate a restart of the previously jointly-run but now closed programmes, such as the Kaesong Industrial Complex and tours to the North's Mount Kumgang resort.
Seoul has said those projects can be resumed when there is progress on denuclearisation and sanctions are eased.
North Korea's propaganda website, Uriminjokkiri, also criticised South Korea for its stance of keeping sanctions, saying "sanctions and conversation cannot exist side by side".