SEOUL, South Korea – North and South Korea on Thursday agreed to hold talks on reopening a jointly run factory complex and possibly other issues, after months of deteriorating relations and a day before a U.S.-China summit in which the North is expected to be a key topic.
The envisioned talks could help rebuild avenues of inter-Korean cooperation that were obliterated in recent years amid hardline stances by both countries, though the key issue isolating the North from the world community — its nuclear program — is not up for debate.
The North's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea, in a statement carried by state media, said it is open to holding talks with Seoul on reopening the Kaesong complex just north of the Demilitarized Zone separating the countries.
South Korean Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Hyung-suk expressed hope that the talks could become an opportunity for the two Koreas to start building trust. He said Seoul will announce the time and agenda for the talks later, but didn't elaborate.
The decade-old Kaesong 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 statement by the committee, which handles relations with Seoul, was the North's first public response to Seoul's proposal in April to hold government-level talks to discuss the factory complex.
More than 120 South Korean companies had operations 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.
Smiling broadly, Han Jae-kwon, chief of the association of South Korean factories in Kaesong, told reporters that he welcomes the agreement for talks. "We are having hope that the Kaesong factory park will be revived," he said.
The North's statement Thursday proposed 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.
Pyongyang also said it could restore its Red Cross communication line with South Korea in their truce village if Seoul agrees to talks, and allowed Seoul to set the date and venue for the dialogue "to the convenience of the south side."
The talks will be the first government-level negotiations between the two Koreas since South Korean President Park Geun-hye took office earlier this year with a North Korea policy dubbed "trustpolitik." She has outlined her intention to reach out to the foes to build trust while remaining firm on intolerance to provocations.
After relations dropped to their lowest level in decades under her predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, North Korea had been looking for a change in the Seoul-Pyongyang relationship under Park, who visited North Korea in 2002. But the first 100 days of her administration were trying times for her "trustpolitik" policy as Pyongyang threatened to carry out nuclear attacks and to close Kaesong.
However, both sides have been looking for a face-saving way to restart relations. Pyongyang proposed a joint event on June 15, the anniversary of their 2000 agreement on reconciliation; Seoul has so far rejected the proposal.
The isolation of the authoritarian North 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.
Pyongyang's statement comes after Choe Ryong Hae, a North Korean military official and confidant of leader Kim Jong Un, 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."
North Korea's economy relies heavily on China, which 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.
Xi is also scheduled to meet with Park later this month.
In early July, Brunei will host an annual regional security forum that has traditionally drawn the foreign ministers of both Koreas. In July 2011, the nuclear envoys of the Koreas held talks in Indonesia on the sidelines of the forum.
The mood on the Korean Peninsula has been tense since North Korean leader Kim Jong Il died in December 2011. Pyongyang denounced Seoul for blocking most civilian visits to the North to pay respects.
The Koreas 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. The last reunions of Korean families pulled apart by that war were held in 2010.
Under Kim Jong Un, Kim Jong Il's son, North Korea has pursued both nuclear weapons and economic development as top priorities. In a Memorial Day speech earlier Thursday, President Park repeated her criticism of that stance, saying the two goals can't be achieved simultaneously. But she also called on North Korea to come to talks with Seoul to build trust.
The North has established economic development zones at Kaesong and near the Chinese border in Rason to pursue foreign investment. On Wednesday, the North's official Korean Central News Agency announced that the country had passed a law allowing for the creating of new economic development zones open to foreign investors. It wasn't clear where those zones would be set up.