North Korea on Monday reversed its recent decision to pull out of a symbolic inter-Korean liaison office on the border with South Korea, unexpectedly sending some of its officials back to work.
The U-turn is being viewed as Pyongyang’s tacit approval of a decision by Donald Trump, the US president, on Friday not to impose any extra sanctions on Kim Jong-un’s regime over its nuclear weapons and missiles programmes.
Mr Trump used his Twitter account to overrule plans by his own administration to introduce fresh sanctions this week. “I have today ordered the withdrawal of those additional Sanctions!” he said.
Sarah Sanders, the White House press secretary, clarified that the president took the decision because he “likes Chairman Kim.”
Analysts say Mr Trump may have put the brakes on sanctions to try to defuse tensions after the collapse of their second summit in Hanoi, Vietnam last month.
The liaison office in Kaesong, North Korea, was opened in September and had been an important symbol of the blossoming diplomatic relations between Seoul and Pyongyang during a détente last year.
The North’s decision on Friday to withdraw its officials, just hours after the US Treasury acted against two Chinese shipping companies for helping Pyongyang evade existing sanctions, was seen as a major setback for Moon Jae-in, the South Korean president, who has invested heavily in the peace process.
The South’s Unification Ministry announced on Monday, however, that the project was tentatively back on track after four or five North Korean officials returned to hold a meeting with their South Korean counterparts, reported the Yonhap news agency.
"The North Koreans said that they came down (to the liaison office) to take their shift as usual," said a ministry official, requesting anonymity.
"They said that the North's commitment remains unchanged for the liaison office to carry out projects in line with the North-South joint declarations," referring to agreements made between Kim and Mr Moon during their summits last year.
Experts believe the threat to abandon the office may have been calculated to pressure South Korea into persuading the United States to soft-pedal on sanctions.