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Two Koreas agree to hold talks to normalize ties

South Korea proposes ministerial meeting in Seoul on June 12

President Park Geun-hye attends the ceremony commemorating the 58th Memorial Day at Seoul National Cemetery on Thursday. (Yonhap News)
President Park Geun-hye attends the ceremony commemorating the 58th Memorial Day at Seoul National Cemetery on Thursday. (Yonhap News)
The two Koreas agreed Thursday to hold talks for the first time in 28 months to normalize ties, including reopening the Gaeseong industrial park and a joint tour program to Mount Geumgang.

South Korea proposed that the two Koreas’ ministers meet in Seoul on June 12, accepting the North’s offer made earlier in the day.
In a news conference in the evening, Unification Minister Rhyu Kihl-jae called on the North to reopen the severed communications line across the border Friday for working-level contacts to prepare for the meeting. 

The Unification Ministry expressed hopes that the intergovernmental talks will be an opportunity to build trust between the two Koreas. 

The North’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea made the offer to take part in the talks, saying Pyongyang was also willing to discuss the reopening of inter-Korea communication channels and arranging a reunion of separated families.

It also proposed the two Koreas co-host an event to mark the 41st anniversary of a landmark inter-Korean cooperation agreement.

“On the occasion of the anniversary of the June 15 Joint Declaration, we propose talks between the North and South governments for the normalization of the Gaeseong industrial zone and the resumption of Mount Geumgang tours,” the North’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea said.

“In the talks the two sides could discuss humanitarian issues including the reunion of separated families and relatives if necessary,” said the agency in charge of cross-border affairs.

It also suggested the two governments jointly celebrate the anniversaries of the first inter-Korean agreement reached on July 4, 1972, and the first cross-border summit on June 15, 2000.

“It will be significant and contribute to the improvement of North-South relations if the two sides jointly mark the June 15 and July 4 statements with the participation of the authorities and civilian groups.”

Inter-Korean ties are at their lowest ebb in years after the suspension of the Gaeseong industrial park, the last remaining symbol of reconciliation, in April.

Its operation was halted when Pyongyang barred South Korean access to the zone and pulled out its 53,000 workers. Seoul followed by withdrawing all its nationals.

Seoul last month proposed official talks with the North on the disposal of materials and products in the complex.

The North, however, shunned a government-level meeting and instead invited South Korean businesses and semi-official complex managers last week, saying it was ready for talks on normalizing the factory enclave.

Earlier the communist country also had offered to host a joint event to commemorate the watershed 2000 inter-Korean summit. The North’s Side Committee for Implementing the June 15 Joint Declaration sent a fax to its South Korean counterpart, suggesting the celebration take place in Gaeseong or Mount Geumgang.

The Seoul government refused both offers, raising suspicion about the North’s sincerity. Seoul officials said the North intended to drive a wedge between the administration and opposition and civic groups calling for an early reconciliation.

Seoul has demanded the North first guarantee South Koreans’ security and stick to any agreement on cooperative projects.

The Geumgang tour was halted in 2008 when a South Korean tourist was shot dead by a North Korean soldier in July. The North refused to apologize and a series of provocations ensued, including deadly attacks on the Cheonan naval craft and a border island in 2010.

The two Koreas had held joint annual celebrations for the 2000 inter-Korean summit between the late leaders Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-il at Mount Geumgang until 2008.

The landmark agreement called for efforts for independent unification and opened the way for the joint tour program, the reunions of families separated by the Korean War, the establishment of the Gaeseong complex, a number of other economic, cultural and social cooperative projects, and government-level dialogue.

The North’s latest proposal came as Seoul, Washington and Beijing are moving to step up their cooperation against Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions on the occasion of their bilateral summit talks this week and later this month.

Observers said the North’s offer showed an improvement in the chilled inter-Korean relations but that Seoul should approach the talks with caution.

“By proposing such formal talks as demanded by the South, it would have the effect of toning down the level of sanctions or denouncement against the North during the U.S.-China summit talks this week as well as in the South Korea-China summit meeting later this month,” said North Korean studies professor Yoo Ho-yeol of Korea University.

“While holding dialogue is always preferable, talking without substantive progress in denuclearization would be meaningless. Seoul should thus approach with prudence so as not to allow Pyongyang to take the lead.”

Earlier this week South Korea and China had agreed to enhance bilateral defense cooperation to help secure denuclearization and peace on the Korean Peninsula. China has recently joined international efforts to rein in the North amid its escalating nuclear and missile threats.

The U.S. and China have also agreed it is essential for the North to denuclearize and said they were working together in pressing Pyongyang to abide by its international obligations.

The North’s proposal came just a few hours after President Park delivered a message to mark the 58th National Memorial Day, in which she urged Pyongyang to embrace the trust-building process for change.

“Embracing the trust-building process for the Korean Peninsula is the direction of change that North Korea should choose,” Park said during a speech at a Memorial Day ceremony at Seoul National Cemetery.

Speaking before some 12,000 attendants including war veterans, ministers and political leaders, Park said peace and unification of Korea are longed for by some 70 million Koreans.

“The road toward change that North Korea must now choose is to keenly accept the trust-building process for the Korean Peninsula and become a responsible member of international society to make joint efforts.”

North Korea has upped its saber-rattling in protest to international sanctions against its missile and nuclear test as well as joint military drills by Seoul and Washington.

The deteriorated tension persisted throughout Park’s first three months in office, during which Park has remained steadfast to the principle of intolerance against provocation but leaving the door open for dialogue.

By Lee Joo-hee