North Korea invited South Korean factory managers back to the closed jointly run industrial zone on Tuesday to discuss its reopening.
The move, announced by the North's state-run media, falls short of Seoul's offer of official government working-level talks on the Kaesong Industrial Zone (KIZ), a key symbol of inter-Korean cooperation.
“We have already consented to the businessmen’s visit to the KIZ, and if they enter it, we are ready to hold any discussion on the normalization of the KIZ including the issue of carrying out products,” the Korean Central News Agency reported.
In April, amid escalating military tensions on the Korean Peninsula, North Korea withdrew its 53,000 workers from the complex — a vital source of income for Pyongyang. The South later pulled out its staff, and despite repeated attempts, the economic zone remains closed.
North Korea has rejected the Unification Ministry's repeated requests for dialogue, calling it a “cunning trick,” and has instead appealed to factory managers via direct fax messages, a move likely intended to bypass Seoul.
Some South Korean newspapers are reporting that the North's government could be making a statement that it will not work directly with the Seoul government, which its leaders see as hostile.
A South Korean ministry official told The New York Times the North's new offer could also be an attempt to sow discord between the government and factory owners who want to resume production.
“Our position remains unchanged: if North Korea is really interested in the future of the Kaesong complex, why doesn’t it accept our proposal for government dialogue?” the ministry official said.
The date of this proposal is also significant. North Korea wants the meeting between officials and South Korean businesses to be held around the anniversary of the 2000 summit between two deceased leaders, Kim Jong Il of North Korea and the former South Korean president, Kim Dae-jung.
The South Korean figure later won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts at reconciliation. But since the late 2000s, relations between North and South have fallen to a low point after Seoul cut off aid to the North, and the North tested three nuclear devices and sank a South Korean naval corvette.
The North's latest gesture follows an announcement out of Pyongyang on Tuesday, with the ruling Workers Party of Korea saying via an article in the Rodong Sinmun that it still had no intent of dismantling its nuclear program.
"Under the condition of ceaseless nuclear threats by Washington, Pyongyang will not unilaterally abandon its war deterrence," the paper said, according to Yonhap, a South Korean news agency.
Senior Correspondent Geoffrey Cain contributed reporting from Seoul. Follow him on Twitter @geoffrey_cain.