North and South Korea could hold talks as soon as Sunday



The inter-Korean industrial complex of Kaesong is seen from a South Korean observation tower in Paju near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) dividing the two Koreas on December 22, 2011.



SEOUL, South Korea — North and South Korea have agreed to enter talks as soon as this weekend on the Kaesong industrial complex that they jointly operate north of the border, and which has been closed since Pyongyang pulled out its workers in April.

After months spent issuing threats and severing communications, North Korea made an overture to South Korea on Thursday morning. Seoul has attempted to open government-level negotiations before, though until now Pyongyang had offered only meetings between factory managers. 

"We propose holding talks between authorities of the North and the South for the normalisation of the operation in the KIZ [Kaesong Industrial Zone] and the resumption of tour of Mount Kumgang," said a statement by the North's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea, cited in state media. 

Mount Kumgang, a tourist resort in North Korea operated by South Korean companies, is another stalled joint project. It has remained vacant since a North Korean guard shot dead a South Korean tourist there in 2008.

South Korea responded by stating that it "positively views North Korea's proposal," and hopes that the discussions will allow the neighbors to "build trust."

Progress between the two countries could be seen as soon as Friday, when North Korea announced that its cross-border hotline to South Korea — cut off in March — would be restored that afternoon to allow the two governments to communicate directly.

South Korea initially proposed a meeting between ministers in Seoul on June 12, though the North said Friday that it first wanted working-level talks to be held at Kaesong on June 9.

South Korea has accepted the offer, though requested that the meeting take place at Panmunjom, the border village that has traditionally hosted discussions between the two countries.

More from GlobalPost: South Korea signals return to Mount Kumgang resort

The Kaesong industrial zone was founded in 2004, when South Korea was pursuing a rapprochement called the Sunshine Policy with North Korea. "Sunshine," as it's called, involved gradually warming up to the North with the eventual aim of unification. The then South Korean President Kim Dae Jung met with his counterpart, Kim Jong Il, at a historic summit in Pyongyang in June 2000.

The Kaesong project is the brainchild of that era of idealism, though inter-Korean relations have since deteriorated after a number of damaging incidents including the halting of many Southern aid packages in 2008, and the sinking of a Southern naval corvette and shelling of an island in 2000.

Kaesong was closed three times in 2009, but the halting of operations has never been so lengthy as the current evacuation of workers, which began on April 8. Most South Korean newspapers predicted North Korea would not suspend operations because the regime would risk losing much-needed revenues paid in foreign currency.

Lim Eul Chul, a South Korean researcher who traveled regularly to Kaesong since its founding, told GlobalPost that neither side wanted to be blamed first for completely shutting down the complex. (Both sides maintain the current stand-off is a temporary suspension.) Neither neighbor wants to see an end to a project that is both economically and politically beneficial for both sides, so it was only a matter of time before they agreed to talks. 

The North's proposal comes shortly after it sent an envoy to China, suggesting that Beijing may have pushed its ally to dial back its rhetoric and be seen to ease tensions.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is due to meet his US counterpart Barack Obama for a summit in California on Friday and Saturday, where North Korea is expected to be a leading topic.

The US welcomed the resumption of inter-Korean dialogue, but remained cautious about whether it would produce a breakthrough. Meanwhile United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon called the announcement "an encouraging development towards reducing tensions and promoting peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula."

Geoffrey Cain reported from Seoul.