The rival Koreas begin talks on Tuesday, 9 January, in the border village of Panmunjom, hoping to break the ice over the participation of North Korean athletes in the upcoming Winter Olympics in a development that has the potential to ease the simmering tensions in the region.

Pyongyang's five-member delegation is led by Ri Son-gwon, a veteran North Korean figure well-known for his role in inter-Korea talks in the past. This is the first such encounter between the two sides in the last two years.

Ri, chairman of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea (CPRK), a state agency in charge of inter-Korean affairs, is known as an expert negotiator and has been spearheading many high-level talks with the South in the past decade. He is also considered the right-hand man of Kim Young-chol, a key political figure in North Korean politics and vice chairman of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party.

"I came here with hopes that the two Koreas hold talks with a sincere and faithful attitude to give precious results to the Korean people who harbor high expectations for this meeting, as the first New Year present," said Ri as the talks kick-started, and added that Pyongyang has entered the negotiations with a "serious and sincere stance".

South Korea is represented by Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon. The South's delegation includes Vice Unification Minister Chun Hae-sung and Vice Sports Minister Roh Tae-kang. Each side has five delegates.

The talks will focus on North Korea's possible participation in the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in February. But, despite the narrow agenda, the talks are expected to be a powerful catalyst to thaw inter-Korea relations.

"These talks started after long-frayed inter-Korean ties," said South Korea's unification minister. "Well begun is half done. I hope that (the two sides) could hold the talks with determination and persistence."

North Korea talks
Head of the North Korean delegation Ri Son-gwon and his South Korean counterpart Cho Myoung-gyon arrive for their meeting at the truce village of Panmunjom in the demilitarised zone separating the two Koreas, South Korea Reuters