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North Korea to reopen hotline with the South

North comes to the table as Seoul offers a top-level meeting

Gulf News

Seoul: North Korea said Friday it would restore a hotline with South Korea and proposed holding weekend talks in a border town, as the two rivals sought to tone down months of soaring military tensions.

The two Koreas unexpectedly reached a snap agreement Thursday on opening a dialogue, with South Korea responding to a North initiative by offering a ministerial-level meeting in Seoul on June 12.

A spokesman for Pyongyang’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea (CPRK) welcomed the South’s quick response, and suggested initial lower-level talks Sunday in the Kaesong joint industrial zone.

The North shut down Kaesong, which lies just over its side of the border, in April as the recent crisis on the divided peninsula peaked. Reopening the joint complex will top the agenda for the proposed dialogue.

“Working-level contact is necessary prior to ministerial-level talks proposed by the South, in light of the prevailing situation in which bilateral relations have stalemated for years and mistrust has reached an extreme,” the CPRK spokesman said.

South Korea’s Unification Ministry said it was “studying” the idea.

The hotline, suspended by the North in March as military tensions flared, was to be restored from 2.00pm Friday, the CPRK spokesman said, but there was no immediate confirmation that it was operational.

The Red Cross link runs through the border truce village of Panmunjom and has long been a vital source of government-to-government communication in the absence of diplomatic relations.

The last working-level talks between the two countries were held in February 2011, and there have been no inter-Korean talks at the ministerial level since 2007.

The agreement on resuming a dialogue, came just ahead of Friday’s US-China summit, at which the North’s nuclear programme will be high on the agenda.

The North’s nuclear test in February resulted in tightened UN sanctions and triggered the cycle of escalating tensions that saw Pyongyang threaten pre-emptive nuclear strikes against the United States and South Korea.

China, the North’s sole major ally and economic benefactor, has been under pressure from the United States to restrain its neighbour, and both Washington and Beijing welcomed the tentative talks agreement.

Yoo Ho-Yeol, a North Korea expert at Korea University in Seoul, said North Korea’s surprise shift signalled a desire to initiate a wider dialogue in the future that “would eventually include the United States”.

But US State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki made it clear that North Korea would have to show some commitment towards abandoning its nuclear weapons programme before the US got involved.

“There remain a number of steps that the North Koreans need to take, including abiding by their international obligations... in order to have further discussion,” Psaki told reporters.

Pyongyang has repeatedly insisted that its nuclear deterrent is not up for negotiation.

The proposed agenda for the North-South talks involves the re-opening of Kaesong, the resumption of tours to the North’s Mount Kumgang resort and renewed cross-border family reunions.

The Kaesong complex, established in 2004 as a symbol of inter-Korean cooperation, was the most high-profile casualty of the recent tensions.

Operations ground to a halt after the North pulled all its 53,000 workers out in early April. The South withdrew its managers and officials soon afterwards.

Ok Sung-Seok, vice-president of the association representing the 123 South Korean firms established in Kaesong, welcomed the move away from confrontation towards dialogue.

“We’ve been living in despair over the past 60 days,” Ok told reporters. “The most important thing is how to secure a guarantee that such a disruption will not occur in the future.”

South Korean President Park Geun-Hye had called weeks ago for talks on Kaesong, but the North had rejected the offer.

Park, who took office in February just days after the North’s nuclear test, has pushed a “trust-building” policy with Pyongyang.

In a meeting with top military commanders Friday, Park said it was South Korea’s “firm security posture” during the recent crisis that had prompted the North’s talks proposal.