Seoul (AFP) - North and South Korea wrapped up their highest level talks for seven years Wednesday without any specific agreement, as they struggled to overcome a row over looming South Korea-US military drills.
The "candid" talks formally ended just before midnight, the South's Unification Ministry said, with a decision to continue discussions but no set timetable for doing so.
There was no joint statement.
Although the most important sit-down meeting between the two rivals since 2007 had begun with no fixed agenda, the South had focused on securing the North's commitment to a planned reunion later this month for family members separated by the 1950-53 Korean War.
The two Koreas agreed last week to hold the reunion from February 20-25, dates that would overlap with the beginning on February 24 of South Korea's annual joint military exercises with the United States.
According to the Unification Ministry, the North side at Wednesday's talks in the border truce village of Panmunjom had demanded that the drills be postponed until after the reunion event was over.
"Our side maintained its position that it cannot accept the North's demands ... because it runs against our principle that there should be no linkage between purely humanitarian and military issues," the ministry said in a statement.
North Korea views the annual joint exercises as a rehearsal for invasion and has repeatedly demanded they be scrapped in a spirit of reconciliation.
Wednesday's talks began at 10:00am (0100 GMT) with a brief morning session, followed by three hours of discussions in the afternoon, and a series of one-on-one evening sit-downs between the chief delegates.
The South side was led by top National Security Council official Kim You-Hun, and the North by Won Tong-Yon -- deputy head of a ruling party organisation that handles inter-Korean ties.
Before the talks began, Kim had said he wanted to "explore the chance of opening a new chapter on the Korean peninsula".
Although there was no agreement, the decision to hold further talks will fuel hopes that the two sides are sincere in seeking some common ground to improve cross-border ties.
The meeting came a day before US Secretary of State John Kerry's arrival in Seoul for a brief visit focused on North Korea.
The North wants to resume talks with Seoul and Washington on nuclear matters, but both have insisted that Pyongyang must first make a tangible commitment to abandoning nuclear weapons.
South Korean President Park Geun-Hye, who came to office a year ago, had campaigned on a promise of greater engagement with Pyongyang and even held out the possibility of a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jon-Un.
Stephan Haggard, a North Korea expert at the Peterson Institute for International Economics said the fact the talks were held at all was "clearly one of the most significant diplomatic developments in North-South relations" during the Park presidency.
But Haggard warned that a continued North Korean focus on getting the military exercises cancelled could kill the momentum.
"If it is pushed hard -? or raised as a condition for future progress ?- the initiative will fade," he said.
Last year's exercises fuelled an unusually sharp and protracted surge in military tensions, with Pyongyang threatening a pre-emptive nuclear strike, and nuclear-capable US stealth bombers making dummy runs over the Korean peninsula.
Seoul and Washington have made it clear there is no question of this year's drills being cancelled, but US officials have indicated they will be toned down, with no aircraft carrier and no strategic bombers.
The North had been expected to push Wednesday for a resumption of regular South Korea tours to its Mount Kumgang resort, but the statement from the South side did not mention the issue.
The South suspended the tours after a tourist was shot and killed by North Korean soldiers in 2008, and Pyongyang is keen to see the return of what was a lucrative source of hard currency.