South Korea offers to meet North for talks next week

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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) - South Korean officials have offered to meet their North Korean counterparts next week in Seoul to talk about restoring a jointly run factory park and other projects.

Thursday's announcement came hours after North Korea said it was open to talks. It said Seoul could set the time and venue, and South Korean Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae proposed that the talks occur June 12 in Seoul.

The talks will be the Koreas' first government-level negotiations since South Korean President Park Geun-hye took office in February.

Pyongyang had said it was willing to hold talks on reopening the Kaesong factory park, which was run with North Korean workers and South Korean managers. It's also willing to talk about resuming reunions of families separated by war, and resuming South Korean tours to a mountain resort.

The decade-old Kaesong complex, the product of an era of inter-Korean cooperation, shut down gradually this spring after Pyongyang cut border communications and access, then pulled the complex's 53,000 North Korean workers. The last of hundreds of South Korean managers at Kaesong left last month.

The statement by the committee, which handles relations with Seoul, was the North's first public response to Seoul's proposal in April to hold government-level talks to discuss the factory complex.

More than 120 South Korean companies had operations at Kaesong, which gave them access to cheap North Korean labor. It was also a rare source of hard currency for North Korea, though the economically depressed country chafed at suggestions that it needed the money Kaesong generated.

Smiling broadly, Han Jae-kwon, chief of the association of South Korean factories in Kaesong, told reporters that he welcomes the agreement. "We are having hope that the Kaesong factory park will be revived," he said.

The North's statement Thursday proposed talks not only about Kaesong but about other defunct inter-Korean endeavors such as cross-border tours and reunions between North Korean and South Korean family members.

Pyongyang also said it could restore its Red Cross communication line with South Korea in their truce village if Seoul agrees to talks. It allowed Seoul to set the date and venue for the dialogue "to the convenience of the south side."

The talks will be the first government-level negotiations between the two Koreas since South Korean President Park Geun-hye took office earlier this year with a North Korea policy dubbed "trustpolitik." She has outlined her intention to reach out to the foes to build trust while remaining firm on intolerance to provocations.

After relations dropped to their lowest level in decades under her predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, North Korea had been looking for a change under Park, who visited North Korea in 2002. But the first 100 days of her administration were trying times for "trustpolitik" as Pyongyang threatened to carry out nuclear attacks and to close Kaesong.

Both sides, however, have been looking for a face-saving way to restart relations. Pyongyang proposed a joint event on June 15, the anniversary of their 2000 agreement on reconciliation; Seoul has so far rejected the proposal.

The isolation of the authoritarian North has grown since a satellite launch in December, viewed as an effort to test its long-range missile technology, and since it conducted a nuclear test in February. Pyongyang was enraged by the United Nations Security Council sanctions those actions brought, and further angered by U.S.-South Korean military drills that the allies call routine but that the North claims are invasion rehearsals. Pyongyang earlier this year threatened nuclear attacks on Seoul and Washington.

Pyongyang's statement came after Choe Ryong Hae, a North Korean military official and confidant of leader Kim Jong Un, met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing in late May and said that Pyongyang was "willing to accept the suggestion of the Chinese side and launch dialogue with all relevant parties."

North Korea's economy relies heavily on China, which shares much of America's frustration over North Korea's nuclear ambitions but is concerned about keeping its neighbor and ally stable.

Xi is meeting President Barack Obama in California on Friday, and Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea expert at Seoul's Dongguk University, said Pyongyang's announcement is timed for those talks.

"North Korea is making it easier for China to persuade the U.S. to get softer on Pyongyang," Koh said.

Xi is also scheduled to meet with Park later this month.

In early July, Brunei will host an annual regional security forum that has traditionally drawn the foreign ministers of both Koreas. In July 2011, the nuclear envoys of the Koreas held talks in Indonesia on the sidelines of the forum.

The mood on the Korean Peninsula has been tense since North Korean leader Kim Jong Il died in December 2011. Pyongyang denounced Seoul for blocking most civilian visits to the North to pay respects.

The Koreas have technically been in a state of war for

nearly 60 years because the Korean War ended in 1953 with a truce and not a peace treaty. The last reunions of Korean families pulled apart by that war were held in 2010.

Under Kim Jong Un, Kim Jong Il's son, North Korea has pursued both nuclear weapons and economic development as top priorities. In a Memorial Day speech earlier Thursday, President Park repeated her criticism of that stance, saying the two goals can't be achieved simultaneously. But she also called on North Korea to come to talks with Seoul to build trust.

The North has established economic development zones at Kaesong and near the Chinese border in Rason to pursue foreign investment. On Wednesday, the North's official Korean Central News Agency announced that the country had passed a law allowing for the creating of new economic development zones open to foreign investors. It wasn't clear where those zones would be set up.

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