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South Korea Accepts North's Surprise Offer of Talks

South Korea's Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae releases a government statement during a news conference at the unification ministry in Seoul, April 26, 2013.

South Korea's Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae releases a government statement during a news conference at the unification ministry in Seoul, April 26, 2013.

South Korea is proposing a date and venue for talks with North Korea. The proposal comes just hours after Pyongyang made a surprise offer for talks on a wide range of issues and said it would leave it up to Seoul to choose the timing and location. This marks a significant reversal of tensions on the peninsula, which had been at their highest state in decades.

South Korea accepted Pyongyang's proposal for working-level talks. And a few hours after that statement, Ryoo Kihl-Jae, the cabinet minister in charge of relations with the North, stepped in front of cameras and reporters in Seoul to suggest a specific place and time for what would be the first official direct dialogue in years between the two Koreas.

Unification Minister Ryoo said the discussions would cover the abandoned joint venture projects at the Kaesong industrial zone and the Kumgang mountain resort. He said Seoul wants the talks to be held in the South Korean capital on June 12.

North's overture

The minister urged Pyongyang on Friday to pick up the inter-Korean hotline at the truce village of Panmunjom to discuss the details.

Earlier this year, North Korea stopped using those communications links amid rising tension on the peninsula.

North Korea's surprise offer of talks earlier Thursday was issued in the name of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland. It came in a special announcement aired shortly after noon on North Korean radio and television.

The North Korean announcer says the North proposes holding talks about normalizing the operation in the Kaesong Industrial Zone and resuming tours to Mt. Kumgang. Humanitarian issues, such as the reunion of separated families and their relatives, can also be discussed during the talks, if necessary.

Kaesong Joint Industrial Complex

-Started producing goods in 2004
-Employs about 53,000 North Koreans
-120 South Korean businesses operate there
-Hailed as rare example of North/South cooperation
-Generates $2 billion in trade annually for North
-Located 10 kilometers north of border
The Kaesong industrial complex, just north of the border, ceased operations in April, when North Korea pulled its 43,000 factory workers from the complex.

Seoul already has offered working-level talks, but only to discuss allowing the managers of the more than 100 South Korean factories in the zone to be able to retrieve raw materials and finished goods left behind after they pulled out.

The Kumgang mountain tourism resort, another rare inter-Korean cooperative venture, also generated millions of dollars worth of revenue for the communist government.

Possibility of thaw

Three years ago, the North seized the assets of the South Korean government and private entities at the resort. It expelled the South Korean workers who had remained behind to maintain hotels and restaurants following a 2008 incident in which a South Korean was shot dead by a North Korean soldier near the resort.

The North's relatively flexible offer of talks about the halted projects is seen as a significant reversal after recent months of bellicose rhetoric.

Pyongyang had threatened to launch a nuclear war - a threat not taken very seriously by Seoul or Washington. It also declared the 1953 Korean War armistice to be void and vowed to continue pursuing its development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles in defiance of international sanctions.

The offer of talks from Pyongyang was made just after South Korean President Park Geun-hye gave a Memorial Day speech that contained remarks directed at the North.

"North Korea must give up its policies that are fueling its isolation and backwardness and bravely accept the hand of reconciliation being offered by South Korea and the global community and strive for mutual prosperity," said Park.

The two Koreas have never established diplomatic relations nor signed a peace treaty.

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