SEOUL (Reuters) - North and South Korea announced on Thursday they were planning to hold talks for the first time since February 2011, signaling attempts to repair ties that have been ruptured for months.
For months earlier this year, North Korea unleashed an almost daily stream of threats against the South and its ally, the United States, vowing to attack them with nuclear weapons. Tension on the Korean peninsula was at the highest in decades, but has waned since joint U.S.-South Korean military drills ended in late April.
North Korea’s state-owned KCNA news agency issued a statement on Thursday proposing talks with the South on normalizing commercial projects, including the joint industrial zone that was closed at the height of tensions in early April.
It also said Pyongyang would restore severed communications channels if the South accepted the offer of talks, indicating it was prepared to roll back a series of hostile steps it took as relations deteriorated.
South Korea welcomed the offer, proposing the talks be held on June 12 between ministers to discuss a range of issues including the commercial projects and families split during the 1950-53 Korean War.
“We hope that the talks take place between the authorities of the South and the North as we proposed and are accepted by the North and become an occasion for relations to develop based on mutual trust,” Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae said.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, a former South Korean foreign minister, was “hopeful it is the beginning of a process of trust-building between the parties.”
“This is an encouraging development towards reducing tensions and promoting peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula,” Ban’s spokesman Martin Nesirky said in a statement.
The North, in the statement by its Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea which handles ties with the South, also proposed discussing the reopening of tours to a mountain resort and family reunions as well as to hold events to mark the 2000 summit of their leaders that opened a decade of warmer ties.
“We propose holding talks between authorities of the North and the South for the normalization of the operation in the KIZ (Kaesong industrial zone) and the resumption of tours of Mt. Kumgang on the occasion of the anniversary of the June 15 joint declaration,” the committee said.
The June 15 declaration refers to the outcome of the 2000 summit between then South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and the North’s Kim Jong-il, who died in 2011.
South Korea has previously proposed to hold talks with the North on reopening the Kaesong zone, but Seoul has been reluctant to link those talks with the summit commemoration, saying Pyongyang would try to use them for propaganda.
North Korea stepped up defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions in December when it launched a rocket that it said had put a scientific satellite into orbit. Critics said the launch was aimed at developing technology to deliver a nuclear warhead mounted on a long-range missile.
The North followed that in February with its third test of a nuclear weapon. That brought new U.N. sanctions which in turn led to a dramatic intensification of North Korea’s threats of nuclear strikes against South Korea and the United States.
The threats have now waned. The North sent one of its top military officials to China in late May and Choe Ryong-hae, a special envoy of leader Kim Jong-un, said the secluded country was willing to take “positive steps” for peace and stability.
Moon Hong-sik, a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Strategy, said North Korea’s gesture may be in response to China’s pressure and also the effect of toughened U.N. sanctions following the nuclear test in February.
“North Korea is following an old pattern of threats, provocations and talks as it is currently pressured by the economic squeeze and its major sponsor China is not same as before,” said Moon.
China welcomed the improvement in ties between the two Koreas. “We hope that both sides cherish this momentum for talks which has not come about easily,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said in Beijing.
The gesture comes just ahead of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s first summit meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama on Friday. North Korea is expected to be the top agenda item.
Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Cynthia Osterman