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NKorea proposes working level talks with SKorea

Friday - 6/7/2013, 2:49am  ET

South Korean President Park Geun-hye, center, salutes to a national flag during a 58th Memorial Day ceremony at the National Cemetery in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, June 6, 2013. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man, Pool)

FOSTER KLUG
Associated Press

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) -- North Korea on Friday proposed holding low-level government talks with South Korea this weekend as the rivals look to mend ties that have plunged during recent years amid hardline stances by both countries.

Pyongyang, which wants to meet Sunday in its border city of Kaesong, also said it would reopen a Red Cross communication line with South Korea in their truce village later Friday. During a weeks-long period of animosity marked by a string of North Korean threats of war and South Korean vows of counterstrikes, the North in March shut down the communication line used for exchanging messages on humanitarian issues.

The statement Friday by the North's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea, which handles relations with Seoul, followed the countries' agreement a day earlier to hold talks on issues including reopening a jointly run industrial complex in Kaesong that had been the last symbol of inter-Korean cooperation before it closed this spring.

South Korea had suggested holding high-level ministerial talks in Seoul on Wednesday, but Pyongyang said lower-level talks are needed first because "bilateral relations have been stalemated for years and mistrust has reached the extremity." The North's statement did not say whether it would accept ministerial-level talks Wednesday following a weekend meeting in Kaesong.

Officials in Seoul said it wasn't yet clear what proposed talks Sunday would focus on if they happen. Such meetings in the past have involved lower-level officials charged with ironing out administrative details and reporting back to their bosses. The next step would be higher-level talks.

The last government-level contact between the Koreas on their peninsula took place in February 2011 at the truce village of Panmunjom, according to the South's Unification Ministry, which deals with North Korea issues.

The mood on the Korean Peninsula has been tense since North Korean leader Kim Jong Il died in December 2011 and his son, Kim Jong Un, took over. Pyongyang, which is estimated to have a handful of crude nuclear devices, has committed a drumbeat of acts over the last year that Washington, Seoul and others deem provocative.

The proposed talks could represent a change in North Korea's approach, analysts said, or could simply be an effort to ease international demands that it end its development of nuclear weapons, a topic crucial to Washington but not a part of envisioned inter-Korean meetings.

If the Koreas meet Sunday in Kaesong, the talks will come on the heels of a high-profile summit Friday by Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Barack Obama in which North Korea is expected to be a key topic. Xi is also scheduled to meet with South Korean President Park Geun-hye later this month.

Beijing, which is Pyongyang's only major economic and political ally, has expressed growing frustration with its neighbor, tightening inspections on cross-border trade and halting business with North Korea's Foreign Trade Bank. But Beijing, worried about its own economy and a possible influx of refugees, also views stability in Pyongyang as crucial.

The proposals for dialogue by the Koreas follow a meeting late last month in Beijing by Xi and the North Korean military's top political officer, who reportedly expressed a willingness to "launch dialogue with all relevant parties."

Kwak Sok Gyong, a Pyongyang resident, told The Associated Press that the North's announcement "reflects what people want in both north and south. I think the relations between north and south should be improved as soon as possible."

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Thursday that Washington supports improved inter-Korean relations but cautioned that it doesn't signal progress on restarting talks on North Korea's nuclear program. For that to happen, North Korea has to abide by its previous commitments to abandon its nuclear weapons, she said.

In April 2012, Pyongyang scuttled a nuclear and humanitarian aid deal with the U.S. by launching a rocket that was viewed as an effort to test its long-range missile technology. In December it launched another long-range rocket; in February it conducted its third nuclear test, and in March and April it issued a string of threats, including vows of nuclear and missile strikes on the United States and South Korea.

But the shutdown of the Kaesong industrial complex was perhaps the biggest blow to relations with Seoul. It closed gradually after Pyongyang cut border communications and access in March and then pulled the complex's 53,000 North Korean workers in April. The last South Korean managers at Kaesong left last month.

More than 120 South Korean companies operated 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.

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