North Korea agrees to low-level talks with South

North Korea has proposed working-level talks with the South as the rivals move to mend ties that have plunged during recent years amid hardline stances by both countries.

North Korea agrees to low-level talks with South

North Korea has proposed working-level talks with the South as the rivals move to mend ties that have plunged during recent years amid hardline stances by both countries.

In another sign of easing tensions before the proposed meeting, to be held in a border city on Sunday, Pyongyang said it would reopen a Red Cross communication line with South Korea in their truce village today.

The North shut the communication line in March during a tense period marked by North Korean threats of war and South Korean counter-threats.

The statement by an unidentified spokesman for the North's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea, which handles relations with Seoul, followed the countries' agreement yesterday to hold talks on reopening a jointly run factory complex and possibly other issues.

The easing tension also comes ahead of a summit by the leaders of China and the United States in which the North is expected to be a key topic.

South Korea proposed government-level talks in April about the factory complex and yesterday suggested holding ministerial talks in Seoul next Wednesday.

But the North Korean statement said working-level talks were needed before any higher-level meetings "in the light of the prevailing situation in which the bilateral relations have been stalemated for years and mistrust has reached the extremity".

The talks proposed by Pyongyang, which would be held in the North Korean border city of Kaesong, could help ease tensions, but the topic of ridding the North of its nuclear weapons programme is not up for debate.

A key issue is finding a way to reopen the factory complex in Kaesong, which is just north of the Demilitarised Zone separating the countries.

The decade-old Kaesong complex, the product of an era of inter-Korean cooperation, shut down gradually after Pyongyang cut border communications and access, then pulled the complex's 53,000 North Korean workers. The last South Korean managers at Kaesong left last month.

Officials in Seoul said it was not yet clear what the proposed talks on 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 envisaged inter-Korean meetings.

If the Koreas meet on Sunday in Kaesong, the talks will come on the heels of a high-profile summit today by Chinese president Xi Jinping and US president Barack Obama in which North Korea is expected to be a key topic.

Mr Xi is also due to meet South Korean president Park Geun-hye later this month.

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

US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Washington supported improved inter-Korean relations but warned that it did not signal progress on restarting talks on North Korea's nuclear programme.

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 US 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.

More than 120 South Korean companies operated at the complex, which gave them access to cheap North Korean labour.

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.

The talks would be the first government-level negotiations between the two Koreas since President Park took office in February with a North Korea policy meant to reach out to Pyongyang to build trust, while remaining firm on not tolerating provocations.

The Koreas have technically been in a state of war for 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.

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