SEOUL, South Korea — North and South Korea have agreed 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.
North Korea said Thursday it is open to holding talks with South Korea on reopening the Kaesong complex just north of the Demilitarized Zone separating the countries. South Korea’s Unification Ministry said in a text message that it “positively accepts” the North’s announcement and will announce the date and agenda of talks later.
The decade-old complex, the product of an era of inter-Korean cooperation, shut down gradually this spring after Pyongyang cut border communications and access, then pulled the complex’s 53,000 North Korean workers. The last of hundreds of South Korean managers at Kaesong left last month.
The Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea in Pyongyang announced the regime’s willingness to hold talks in a statement carried by state media. The committee handles relations with Seoul. The statement was the North’s first public response to Seoul’s proposal in April to hold government-level talks to discuss the factory complex.
The authoritarian country’s isolation has grown since a satellite launch in December, viewed as an effort to test its long-range missile technology, and since it conducted a nuclear test in February. Pyongyang was enraged by the United Nations Security Council sanctions those actions brought, and further angered by U.S.-South Korean military drills that the allies call routine but that the North claims are invasion rehearsals. Pyongyang earlier this year threatened nuclear attacks on Seoul and Washington.
The North Korean statement comes after Choe Ryong Hae, the North’s top political officer, met with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Beijing in late May and said that Pyongyang was “willing to accept the suggestion of the Chinese side and launch dialogue with all relevant parties.” China shares much of America’s frustration over North Korea’s nuclear ambitions but is concerned about keeping its neighbor and ally stable.
Xi is meeting President Barack Obama in California on Friday, and Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Dongguk University, said Pyongyang’s announcement is timed for those talks. “North Korea is making it easier for China to persuade the U.S. to get softer on Pyongyang,” Koh said.
The North’s statement Thursday proposed talks not only about Kaesong, but about resuming cross-border tours suspended since 2008, and restarting the reunions of families divided since the Korean War. It added that the North could restore its Red Cross communication line with South Korea in their truce village if Seoul agrees to talks.
In a Memorial Day speech earlier Thursday, South Korean President Park Geun-hye reiterated her criticism of North Korea’s national goals of pursuing nuclear and economic development, saying they can’t be achieved simultaneously. Park, who is set to meet with Xi in late June, also called on North Korea to come to talks with Seoul to build trust.
Relations remain tense between the Koreas, which have technically been in a state of war for nearly 60 years because the Korean War ended in 1953 with a truce and not a peace treaty. North Korea on Wednesday accused Seoul of kidnapping nine North Koreans that South Korean activists call defectors. The group was detained in Laos last month and repatriated via China last week.