North and South Korea agreed in principle yesterday to hold their first official talks for years, signalling a possible breakthrough in cross-border ties after months of escalated military tensions.
In a surprise offer, Pyongyang proposed discussions on a range of commercial and humanitarian issues, from reopening the Kaesong joint industrial complex to resuming cross-border family reunions.
In an unusually quick reply, South Korea called for minister-level talks next Wednesday in Seoul, and urged the North to reopen severed communications channels for working-level discussions from today. "I hope ... dialogue will provide a momentum for South and North Korea to improve relations based on mutual trust," South Korea's unification minister, Ryoo Kihl-jae, said.
China, North Korea's sole major ally, reacted positively.
"China is happy and welcomes [the fact] that [North and South Korea] agreed to resume their engagement and dialogue," said foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei .
But some analysts advised caution, saying the precise nature of the dialogue might create sticking points.
"I think this is an attempt by the North to seize the initiative, but it's premature to say whether the offer is likely to lead to a sincere dialogue," said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul. Official contacts between Seoul and Pyongyang have been essentially frozen since South Korea accused the North of torpedoing one of its warships in March 2010 with the loss of 46 lives.
Tensions rose to worrying levels this spring as the North, angered by joint US-South Korean military drills and UN sanctions imposed after its nuclear test in February, threatened pre-emptive nuclear strikes.
The situation has calmed down in recent weeks, with both sides circling warily around the idea of opening some sort of dialogue. The North's proposal, carried in a statement from the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea (CPRK), said the venue and date for talks "can be set to the convenience of the South". Initial subjects for discussion would be the Kaesong joint industrial zone, which was closed at the height of the recent tensions, and the resumption of cross-border tours to the North's Mount Kumgang resort, the CPRK said.
Humanitarian issues such as reuniting family members separated after the 1950-53 Korean war could also be discussed.
The CPRK said a positive response would see the North consider rolling back measures it took when relations went into a tailspin in April, including restoring a cross-border hotline.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye welcomed the North's gesture. "I hope this will serve as momentum for South and North Korea to solve various pending issues ... through dialogue and build trust," she added.
South Korea had already offered working-level talks on Kaesong and Seoul is likely to be wary of agreeing to a much wider-ranging agenda.
While Park has spoken of the need for dialogue, she has made it clear - with US backing - that substantive talks would require the North to show commitment to abandoning its nuclear weapons programme. Pyongyang has insisted that its nuclear deterrent is not up for negotiation.
"There could be trouble in setting the agenda, and it's natural to doubt North Korea's sincerity," said Paik Hak-soon, of the Sejong Institute in Seoul.
"But this a typically strategic change of direction by the North presents a genuine opportunity."