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S. Korea suggests inter-Korean dialogue in Seoul next week

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(GlobalPost/GlobalPost)

SEOUL, June 6 (Yonhap) -- Responding to North Korea's proposal to hold talks, South Korea suggested Thursday the countries hold a ministerial-level dialogue next week in Seoul and called on the North to reopen communications channels.

"(The government) suggests ministerial-level South-North talks on June 12 in Seoul in order to resolve issues of the Kaesong Industrial Complex, the Mt. Kumgang resort and separated families," Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae said in a hastily-called news conference. "We positively view the North's acceptance today of what our government has insistently proposed," said the chief of the ministry dealing with inter-Korean affairs.

Ryoo also called on the North to restart the communication channels in order to hold preparatory negotiations for next week's ministerial talks. "I hope holding the talks becomes an opportunity for inter-Korean relations to develop under mutual trust," he said.

The talks, if held, could bring about a breakthrough in strained cross-border relations after months of heightened tensions. Following a long-range rocket launch in December, widely suspected to be a pretext to test its ballistic missile technology, and the internationally-condemned nuclear bomb test on Feb. 12, the North had continuously stepped up its provocations, including canceling cease-fire agreements and shutting down communication hotlines, before letting tensions cool off in recent weeks. The talks will also mark the first inter-Korean dialogue since the two countries last held a working-level military dialogue more than two years ago.

Since first proposing inter-government talks on May 14, Seoul has repeatedly pushed for discussions on resuming operations at the Kaesong factory zone, which remains suspended after the North withdrew North Korean workers from the park in early April.

Seoul's Thursday proposal came after North Korea released a special statement by the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea (CPRK) around noon that called for official talks covering issues as the normalization of the Kaesong Industrial Complex and Mount Kumgang tours, asking Seoul to pick the time and venue.

The action by Pyongyang was a stark departure from its previous stance in which the communist country tried to sideline the South government and hold unofficial talks with South Korean businessmen running factories in the Kaesong park and civic group officials over the resumption issue.

"We propose holding talks between authorities of the north and south for the normalization of operations at Kaesong and the resumption of tours to Mt. Kumkang on the occasion of the anniversary of the June 15 joint declaration," the CPRK statement carried by the Korean Central News Agency said.

All operations at the Kaesong complex, located just north of the demilitarized zone, came to a halt after Pyongyang ordered all of its 53,000 laborers hired by 123 South Korean companies not to report to work on April 9. Seoul countered by pulling the last of its personnel from the industrial complex, which is a symbol of cross-border cooperation. Tours to Mount Kumgang were stopped in June 2008 after a South Korean tourist was shot dead by a North Korean guard.

Pyongyang also said that if Seoul accepts the talks proposal, it will re-establish the Red Cross liaison channels that run through the truce village of Panmunjom, which will make it possible for the two sides to communicate with each other. The Red Cross hotline along with those operated by the military were disconnected by the North earlier in the year in response to joint South Korea-U.S. military exercises and Seoul's condemnation of the North's third nuclear test.

The communist country said the talks could touch on humanitarian issues, such as allowing the reunion of families separated by the Korean War (1950-53), which have not been held for three years.

The North's committee added that it wants to hold ceremonies marking not only the June 15 declaration, but the July 4th North-South Joint Statement reached in 1972.

"We propose realizing the joint national events to mark the 13th anniversary of the June 15 declaration and jointly commemorating the 41st anniversary of the July 4 joint statement in the presence of the authorities of both sides," it said. The CPRK said that the events can take place with both government authorities and non-governmental organization (NGO) members in attendance. It repeated its calls for Seoul to allow South Korean NGOs and businessmen to visit the North, which have thus far been rejected by Seoul as a ploy to fuel internal discord in the South.

The June 15 declaration was signed between late liberal South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in 2000, while the July 4 statement was reached under former South Korean President Park Chung-hee and North Korean founder Kim Il-sung. Park is the father of incumbent South Korean President Park Geun-hye, while Kim Il-sung is the grandfather of Kim Jong-un, the current leader of the North.

The North claimed that the latest offer is consistent with its stance of promoting national reconciliation and unity and achieving reunification.

It had said that if the South Korean authorities truly want to build confidence and improve relations between the two sides, they should not miss this opportunity, but should positively respond to the decision.

South Korean President Park Geun-hye welcomed the North's proposal, with Park's senior press secretary Lee Jung-hyun quoting her as saying, "I am glad that the North accepted the resumption of inter-Korean talks, although belatedly."

"I hope this could be the chance for the countries to start resolving many issues and build trust through dialogue," Lee quoted the president as saying.

Meanwhile, lawmakers from the ruling Saenuri and main opposition Democratic Party all welcomed the North's call for government-level talks.

Saenuri spokesman Rep. Yoo Il-ho, said the move can be seen as the North accepting South Korea's position on how to proceed with dialogue.

"The party hopes that talks will be held as soon as possible and hopes such a move will be the first step in forging ahead with President Park Geun-hye's trust building process that aims to ease tensions and lay the foundation of peace and prosperity," the lawmaker said.

DP spokesman Park Yong-jin said the liberal party welcomes the latest actions taken, and hopes the talks will open a new chapter in doing away with tensions that have spiked in recent months.

Besides detonating a nuclear device, the North unilaterally nullified the Armistice Agreement that halted the Korean conflict, said it will not honor its denuclearization pledge and threatened to launch nuclear attacks against South Korea and the United States.

In addition to political parties, businessmen with factories in Kaesong said they hope the latest proposal will lead to normalization at the industrial park that has been shut down for nearly two months.

In a press conference, representative of businesses called for talks to be held as soon as possible so operations at Kaesong can return to normal. They pointed out that the onset of the monsoon season could seriously damage equipment left behind at the industrial complex.

They, however, called on Seoul to create safeguard measures to ensure such a situation does not take place in the future. The government said that if the North wants Kaesong to open its doors again, it must give strong assurances that it will not take unilateral actions again and accept international guidelines on such joint ventures.

Related to the North proposal and South Korea's acceptance, political observers here said the Park administration may be able to earn credit for standing firm on principle that eventually nudged the North to bow to its terms.

"By standing firm and not giving in to calls from critics, the government caused the North to alter its policies," a government insider, who did not want to be identified, claimed.

He pointed out that after first calling for working-level government talks, Seoul had not wavered on this point, despite numerous counter proposals made by the North and attacks leveled against it from detractors in the country who accused policymakers of not being flexible.

Others said that a noteworthy development of the North talks proposal can be found in its calls to celebrate the July 4 statement, that has not generated a lot of attention in recent years.

The statement, which was the first official document signed by the two countries that are technically still at war, outlined three key principles of bringing about unification as well as announcing steps to end hostilities, promoting exchanges, Red Cross talks and setting up emergency hotlines linking the two capitals. The three key principles call for self-reliance, peace and unity in bringing about unification of the Korean Peninsula.

"President Park has frequently made references to the historical statement and it is noteworthy that the North has recognized this in the proposal it has made," said Kim Yeon-chul, a professor in the unification studies department at Inje University.

Besides such changes, North Korea experts said that Pyongyang may have opted to engage in talks following the visit to China by a special envoy late last month. At the talks the North agreed to hold dialogue with interested parties and return to the stalled six-party talks.

"The move can be seen as the first tangible step in fulfilling its plan to hold talks to resolve sticky issues facing the region," said Yang Moo-jin, a political science at the University of North Korean Studies.

In addition, Cho Bong-hyun, an analyst at the IBK Economic Research Institute said Pyongyang's emphasis on economic growth may have played a role in making the proposal.

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