NKorea proposes working level talks with SKorea

Associated Press
South Korean Army soldiers patrol on Unification bridge, which leads to the demilitarized zone, separating North Korea from South Korea in Paju, South Korea, Thursday, June 6, 2013. North and South Korea have agreed Thursday to hold talks on reopening a jointly run factory complex and possibly other issues, a hopeful sign for ending deteriorating relations that comes just as China and the U.S. prepare for a summit where the North is expected to be a key topic. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)
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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea on Friday proposed holding low-level government talks with South Korea this weekend as the rivals look to mend ties that have plunged during recent years amid hardline stances by both countries.

Pyongyang, which wants to meet Sunday in its border city of Kaesong, also said it would reopen a Red Cross communication line with South Korea in their truce village later Friday. During a weeks-long period of animosity marked by a string of North Korean threats of war and South Korean vows of counterstrikes, the North in March shut down the communication line used for exchanging messages on humanitarian issues.

The statement Friday by the North's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea, which handles relations with Seoul, followed the countries' agreement a day earlier to hold talks on issues including reopening a jointly run industrial complex in Kaesong that had been the last symbol of inter-Korean cooperation before it closed this spring.

South Korea had suggested holding high-level ministerial talks in Seoul on Wednesday, but Pyongyang said lower-level talks are needed first because "bilateral relations have been stalemated for years and mistrust has reached the extremity." The North's statement did not say whether it would accept ministerial-level talks Wednesday following a weekend meeting in Kaesong.

Officials in Seoul said it wasn't yet clear what proposed talks Sunday would focus on if they happen. Such meetings in the past have involved lower-level officials charged with ironing out administrative details and reporting back to their bosses. The next step would be higher-level talks.

The last government-level contact between the Koreas on their peninsula took place in February 2011 at the truce village of Panmunjom, according to the South's Unification Ministry, which deals with North Korea issues.

The mood on the Korean Peninsula has been tense since North Korean leader Kim Jong Il died in December 2011 and his son, Kim Jong Un, took over. Pyongyang, which is estimated to have a handful of crude nuclear devices, has committed a drumbeat of acts over the last year that Washington, Seoul and others deem provocative.

The proposed talks could represent a change in North Korea's approach, analysts said, or could simply be an effort to ease international demands that it end its development of nuclear weapons, a topic crucial to Washington but not a part of envisioned inter-Korean meetings.

Pyongyang understands that dialogue with Seoul is a precondition for any meaningful talks with the United States, and the North's latest overtures are aimed at creating a mood that could lead to U.S.-North Korea negotiations, said Yoo Ho-yeol, a North Korea expert at Korea University in South Korea.

Because Pyongyang needs talks with Washington to win aid and security guarantees, "realistically, the North doesn't have a choice" in pursuing talks with Seoul. "Its relations with the United States can't improve while its relations with South Korea remain tense," Yoo said.

If the Koreas meet Sunday in Kaesong, the talks will come on the heels of a high-profile summit Friday by Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Barack Obama in which North Korea is expected to be a key topic. Xi is also scheduled to meet with South Korean President Park Geun-hye later this month.

Beijing, which is Pyongyang's only major economic and political ally, has expressed growing frustration with its neighbor, tightening inspections on cross-border trade and halting business with North Korea's Foreign Trade Bank. But Beijing, worried about its own economy and a possible influx of refugees, also views stability in Pyongyang as crucial.

The proposals for dialogue by the Koreas follow a meeting late last month in Beijing by Xi and the North Korean military's top political officer, who reportedly expressed a willingness to "launch dialogue with all relevant parties."

Kwak Sok Gyong, a Pyongyang resident, told The Associated Press that the North's announcement "reflects what people want in both north and south. I think the relations between north and south should be improved as soon as possible."

In Seoul, Park Gyeong-hyun, a 17-year-old student, said the Koreas have many unresolved problems, such as families separated by the Korean War six decades ago. "So I view the talks as a positive thing because the relationship between the two Koreas will get better if the talks go well."

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Thursday that Washington supports improved inter-Korean relations but cautioned that it doesn't signal progress on restarting talks on North Korea's nuclear program. For that to happen, North Korea has to abide by its previous commitments to abandon its nuclear weapons, she said.

In April 2012, Pyongyang scuttled a nuclear and humanitarian aid deal with the U.S. by launching a rocket that was viewed as an effort to test its long-range missile technology. In December it launched another long-range rocket; in February it conducted its third nuclear test, and in March and April it issued a torrent of threats, including vows of nuclear and missile strikes on the United States and South Korea.

But the shutdown of the Kaesong industrial complex was perhaps the biggest blow to relations with Seoul. It closed gradually after Pyongyang cut border communications and access in March and then pulled the complex's 53,000 North Korean workers in April. The last South Korean managers at Kaesong left last month.

More than 120 South Korean companies operated at the complex, which gave them access to cheap North Korean labor. It was also a rare source of hard currency for North Korea, though the economically depressed country chafed at suggestions that it needed the money Kaesong generated.

North and South Korea agreed Thursday to talks not only about Kaesong but about other defunct inter-Korean endeavors such as cross-border tours and reunions between North Korean and South Korean family members.

The talks would be the first government-level negotiations between the Koreas since President Park took office in February with a North Korea policy meant to reach out to Pyongyang to build trust while remaining firm on not tolerating provocations.

Relations dropped to their lowest level in years under her predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, and the first 100 days of Park's administration tested her proposed policy as Pyongyang threatened to carry out nuclear attacks and to close Kaesong.

Pyongyang was enraged by United Nations Security Council sanctions over its most recent rocket launch and nuclear test and annual U.S.-South Korean military drills.

The Koreas have technically been in a state of war for 60 years because the Korean War ended in 1953 with a truce and not a peace treaty. The last reunions of Korean families pulled apart by that war were held in 2010.

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