SEOUL — In a sudden change of heart, North Korea called Thursday for talks with South Korea about reopening a shuttered industrial park and restarting tourist exchanges and reunions of separated families.
Seoul almost immediately accepted, setting the stage for the first talks since the 20-something Kim Jong Un took over the leadership of North Korea after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, in December 2011.
North Korea analysts said the timing of the proposal was strategically planned, as it came a day ahead of President Obama’s meeting in California with Chinese leader Xi Jinping. Xi met recently with a special envoy sent to Beijing by Kim and urged the North Koreans to drop their hostility toward Seoul.
In Seoul, the Unification Ministry , which handles North Korea relations, said there was no date or agenda set for what would be working-level talks. It does not appear that the talks will address more substantive matters, such as North Korea’s nuclear program.
“We hope the talks will become an opportunity to help forge trust,” the ministry said in a statement.
“North Korea is showing they are willing to move toward negotiation and dialogue. This is to give China a better position when Xi Jinping meets with Obama,” said Koh Yoo-hwan, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul.
Still, it came as a surprise given that Pyongyang has for months rejected all offers of talks from Seoul, calling attempts at diplomacy a “crafty trick.”
The statement released Thursday came from North Korea’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland.
“We call for meeting between authorities to normalize Kaesong Industrial Complex and reopening of Mount Kumgang Tourist Region,” Pyongyang’s official KCNA news service reported. “If necessary, we could negotiate humanitarian issues such as bringing together separated families.”
The statement referred to the anniversary of a landmark June 15, 2000, summit in Pyongyang between North Korea’s Kim Jong Il and then-South Korean President Kim Dae-jung.
The rapprochement policy between the Koreas eventually fell apart, strained by North Korea’s weapons programs and resentment by South Koreans that they were being cheated.
The Kaesong industrial zone, which provided North Korea with some $90 million in hard currency, closed last month amid a frenzy of threats and accusations from Pyongyang.
Deng Yuwen, a Beijing-based foreign policy analyst, said Thursday that pressure from the Chinese government wasn’t the only factor pushing North Korea back to the table.
“Internally, I think the North Koreans realized that they couldn’t continue with their war tactics. It was not sustainable. They have to make things work with South Korea,” Deng said.
Demick reported from Beijing.