North Korea reopens hotline with South, seeks weekend talks

SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea reopened a Red Cross hotline with South Korea on Friday and invited officials from Seoul to talks over the weekend, a further sign the North wants to improve ties after a barrage of threats to wage war this year.

A man walks past a logo of the South Korean Red Cross at its headquarters in Seoul February 9, 2011. REUTERS/Truth Leem

On Thursday, North Korea proposed talks to normalize commercial projects, including a joint industrial zone it shut down at the height of tension in early April.

North Korea’s moves come ahead of a summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Barack Obama on Friday in California. North Korea’s actions, including its latest nuclear test in February and threats to attack South Korea and the United States, are likely to be high on the agenda.

North Korea had stopped responding to calls on the Red Cross hotline in March. Another hotline, used by military officials, remains down.

“We appreciate the fact that the South side promptly and positively responded to the proposal made by us for holding talks between the authorities of both sides,” the North’s official KCNA news agency quoted a spokesman for the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea as saying.

The two Koreas have not held talks since February 2011.

South Korea has proposed cabinet level talks on June 12 in Seoul to discuss a range of issues including commercial projects and families separated during the 1950-53 Korean War.

In response, the North invited South Korea to a working-level meeting on Sunday in the border city of Kaesong, where South Korean companies employed 53,000 North Korean workers to make cheap household goods until the North ordered it closed.

Later on Thursday, South Korea used the restored hotline to accepted the proposal for working-level talks but suggested they be held at the Panmunjom truce village straddling the border. It also suggested the talks include preparatory work for the ministerial-level meeting.

Tension escalated on the peninsula after the United Nations imposed new sanctions on North Korea for its February 12 nuclear test, the country’s third. North Korea also said two months of joint U.S.-South Korean military drills that ended in late April were a prelude to an invasion.

The international community condemned North Korea for its threats. China, the North’s major diplomatic ally, was also critical.

China told a North Korean delegation that visited Beijing late last month that North Korea should stop conducting nuclear tests and focus on economic development, a source with knowledge of the talks told Reuters.

Editing by Jack Kim and Robert Birsel