North and South Korea agreed in principle Thursday to hold their first official talks for several years next week, signaling a thaw in frosty cross-border relations after months of high-strung diplomatic tensions and military exercises on both sides of the divided peninsula.
The breakthrough, which some are attributing to a North Korean “charm offensive,” came after Pyongyang’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea, the government agency in charge of relations with Seoul, called for official talks on cross-border economic and business ventures, including the joint industrial park at Kaesong just north of the frontier, which Pyongyang closed earlier this year.
South Korea’s Unification Ministry accepted the offer within an hour, according to the independent South Korean news agency Yonhap.
Thursday’s offer is a complete u-turn by Pyongyang, which previously offered only non-governmental talks that Seoul rejected. Retired senior military intelligence analyst and veteran Korea Watcher John McCreary said that it heralded a “charm offensive” by the north.
The move “is the latest high point in the policy reversal trend that began in May,” after both sides ended military exercises that had raised the temperature on the peninsula almost to boiling point, Mr. McCreary observed in his open source intelligence e-letter NightWatch.
“We propose holding talks between authorities of the north and south for the normalization of operations at Kaesong and the resumption of [tourist] tours to Mt. Kumkang,” said the north’s reunification committee in its statement, carried by Pyongyang’s official Korea Central News Agency.
Mt. Kumkang, or “Diamond Mountain,” has been renowned since ancient times as a place of great beauty, according to the Encyclopedia Brittanica, and is the site of the one of the most important Zen Buddhist monasteries on the peninsula.
In the late 1990’s, under South Korea’s “sunshine policy” of trying to build links with the North, South Korean businesses built a tourist resort there. Tours from the south began in 1998 and quickly became a large source of hard currency for the isolated and poverty-stricken communist state in the north.
By 2004, up to 240,000 South Koreans annually visited the mountain, about 50 kms north of the Demilitarized Zone on the east coast.
South Korea stopped the tours in 2008 after North Korean guards shot and killed a South Korean tourist who strayed off the path. Two years later, North Korea seized the resort without compensation and tried to entice third country firms to manage the facility after South Korea rejected repeated demands to resume the tours.
Kaesong industrial park, until the north closed it in April, was likewise an important source of foreign currency for the regime. The factories are built managed and owned by South Korean businesses, and staffed by North Korean workers, but the Pyongyang government is paid their wages, passing on a small amount in local currency to the laborers themselves.
Mr. McCreary said there was little doubt about Pyongyang’s motivation for trying to reopen both facilities.
“The North needs the cash,” he said, “More importantly it needs the backing of China. This initiative will go far to reassure the Chinese leadership that the North will comply with [Beijing’s] demand for stability in Northeast Asia.”
An overture to the United States is “almost certain to follow,” he said.
The talks are scheduled to take place in Seoul next Wednesday.