June 7 (Bloomberg) -- North and South Korea agreed to working-level discussions on reopening a jointly-run industrial zone in the latest sign of easing tensions after months of bellicose rhetoric.
South Korea agreed to the North’s offer of a meeting on June 9 and suggested the two sides gather at the Panmunjom border village at 10 a.m. to discuss the Gaeseong complex, a South Korean Unification Ministry official told reporters, asking not to be named per ministry policy. The two sides will resume communications tomorrow at 9 a.m., the ministry later said later in a text message.
“We appreciate the fact that the South side promptly and positively responded to the proposal made by us,” the official Korean Central News Agency cited an unidentified government spokesman as saying. It sought the lower level talks “in light of the prevailing situation in which the bilateral relations have been stalemated for years.”
The outreach from Kim Jong Un’s regime contrasts with months of threats including a warning of preemptive nuclear strikes after the United Nations tightened sanctions over its rocket launch in December and atomic bomb test in February. The North may be feeling the economic strain as sanctions bite and China prods it to resume six-party nuclear disarmament talks.
“The quick response from North Korea shows that they are finally in the mood to talk,” Cho Bong Hyun, a Seoul-based research fellow at IBK Economic Research Institute, said by phone. “Although South Korea should expect discussions on economic cooperation to proceed relatively faster because they’re desperate, other agendas including de-nuclearization will take much longer.”
The overture comes as President Barack Obama meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping in California today. The two are expected to discuss North Korea’s nuclear program and the U.S. demand that Kim’s regime return to the six-party talks, which broke off in 2008.
“We welcome news that South Korea and North Korea have agreed to talks,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said yesterday. “We support and have always supported improved inter-Korean relationships.”
In a speech yesterday, South Korean President Park Geun Hye called on the North to abandon its isolationist path, work to build trust with the South and become a “responsible member” of the international community.
Park will visit China June 27-30 as the two sides seek to maintain regional “peace, stability and development,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said at a briefing in Beijing today.
The closing of the Gaeseong industrial park deprived the impoverished state of a source of much-needed hard currency. China, North Korea’s biggest ally and benefactor, has pushed the totalitarian state to resume nuclear disarmament talks, leaving it “no choice but to cooperate with the South to get the economy going,” Jo Dong Ho, North Korean Studies professor at Ewha Womans University, said by phone yesterday.
The North’s proposal yesterday also included an offer of discussions on re-opening North Korea’s Mount Geumgang luxury resort, which was closed in 2008 after soldiers killed a South Korean guest.
Hong, the China Foreign Ministry spokesman, told reporters in Beijing yesterday that his government was optimistic “the relevant parties can cherish this change that has not come easy.”
North Korea suspended operations indefinitely at the Gaeseong complex April 8, a month after threatening preemptive nuclear strikes in response to U.S.-South Korea military drills. Kim’s government last month proposed that South Korea businessmen visit the industrial zone for discussions while rejecting government-level talks.
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