North Korea has reopened a cross-border communications channel with South Korea Wednesday, the first significant sign the bitter rivals are seeking to improve relations after years of rising tensions.
South Korean officials say it received a call from their North Korean counterparts over the hotline, based in the border village of Panmunjom, located in the demilitarized zone that separates the North and South. The hotline had been dormant since February 2016, when Pyongyang cut off communications after Seoul pulled out of a jointly-run industrial complex in response to North Korea's continued nuclear and ballistic missile testing.
Ri Son Gwon, the head of the North Korean agency that handles inter-Korean affairs, said his country is seeking to engage with the South out of a "sincere stand and honest attitude," in a statement announcing the reopening of the hotline carried earlier Wednesday by the North's state-run KCNA news agency.
The sudden thaw in frosty ties between North and South Korea began Monday, when North Korean leader Kim Jong Un used his annual New Year's Day address to call for direct talks with Seoul and to announce his willingness to send a negotiating team to South Korea to discuss his country's possible participation in the upcoming Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang next month.
Seoul responded Tuesday by offering to hold talks with North Korean diplomats next week, January 9, in Panmunjom. The meeting would be the first high-level inter-Korean talks since December 2015.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in has welcomed Kim's diplomatic overture, but insists that any improvements in inter-Korean relations must occur in tandem with Pyongyang's abandonment of its nuclear weapons program.
"In terms of the expectation of what the talks would be about, the government is keeping a very open mind," said James Kim, a research fellow at the Seoul-based Asan Institute for Policy Studies. He said negotiators will use the talks over the Olympics as a stepping stone to other issues, including reuniting families separated since the 1950-53 civil war that split the two sides.
"But beyond that, on matters dealing with denuclearization, I think the government is keeping a very level head...that this is something that is not going to get solved overnight," he added.
Organizers of the Pyeongchang Olympics say they are eager to bring a North Korean delegation to the Games if they choose to participate. Governor Choi Moon-soon of Gangwon province, where Pyeongchang is located, has offered to send a cruise ship to the North to transport its delegation to the South Korean provincial port of Sokcho near the Olympic venues.