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North reopens hotline with Seoul ahead of talks

AFP-JIJI

North Korea reopened a hotline with South Korea on Friday as the two sides agreed to weekend talks aimed at mending ties after months of soaring tensions and threats of nuclear war.

The two Koreas unexpectedly reached a snap agreement Thursday on opening a dialogue, with South Korea responding to a North initiative by offering a ministerial-level meeting in Seoul on June 12.

A spokesman for Pyongyang’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea (CPRK) then suggested initial lower-level talks Sunday in the Kaesong joint industrial zone.

The South’s Unification Ministry — using the newly reopened hotline — agreed but said the border truce village of Panmunjom would be a more appropriate venue.

The North shut down Kaesong, which lies just over its side of the border, in April as military tensions on the divided peninsula peaked. Reopening the joint complex will top the agenda for the proposed dialogue.

“Working-level contact . . . is necessary prior to ministerial-level talks proposed by the South, in light of the prevailing situation in which bilateral relations have stalemated for years and mistrust has reached an extreme,” the CPRK spokesman said.

The restoration of the Red Cross hotline, which Pyongyang closed down in March, marked a tangible step in the effort to dial down tensions.

The telephone link that runs through Panmunjom has long been a vital source of government-to-government communication in the absence of diplomatic relations.

The last working-level talks between the two countries were held in February 2011, and there have been no inter-Korean talks at the ministerial level since 2007.

The agreement on resuming a dialogue came just ahead of Friday’s U.S.-China summit, at which the North’s nuclear program will be high on the agenda.

The North’s nuclear test in February resulted in tightened U.N. sanctions and triggered the cycle of escalating tensions that saw Pyongyang threaten pre-emptive nuclear strikes against the United States and South Korea.

China, the North’s sole major ally and economic benefactor, has been under pressure from the United States to restrain its neighbor, and both Washington and Beijing welcomed the tentative talks agreement.

Yoo Ho-yeol, a North Korea expert at Korea University in Seoul, said North Korea’s surprise shift signaled a desire to initiate a wider dialogue in the future that “would eventually include the United States”.

But U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki made it clear that North Korea will have to show some commitment toward abandoning its nuclear weapons program before the U.S. gets involved.

“There remain a number of steps that the North Koreans need to take, including abiding by their international obligations . . . in order to have further discussion,” Psaki told reporters.

The proposed agenda for the North-South talks involves the re-opening of Kaesong, the resumption of tours to the North’s Mount Kumgang resort and renewed cross-border family reunions.