A South Korean security guard stands on an empty road leading to the Kaesong Industrial Complex, just south of the demilitarised zone separating the two Koreas, in Paju, South Korea. The Korean characters on the gateway read, Inter-Korean Transit Office. Picture: REUTERS
A South Korean security guard stands on an empty road leading to the Kaesong Industrial Complex, just south of the demilitarised zone separating the two Koreas, in Paju, South Korea. The Korean characters on the gateway read, Inter-Korean Transit Office. Picture: REUTERS

Seoul — North Korea has been saying it will re-open a hotline with the South to discuss attending the Winter Olympics, forging ahead with peace overtures despite taunts from US President Donald Trump.

Despite expectations, the hotline, which was cut by the North in 2016, was restored on Wednesday morning after Seoul proposed high-level talks in response to an olive branch from the North’s leader ahead of February’s games in Pyeongchang, about 80km from the border dividing the Korean Peninsula.

However, it was North Korean officials who made initial contact with their counterparts in South Korea: North Korea called the hotline at 3.30pm in Seoul.

Kim’s recent overtures to the South mark a rare softening in tone, as tension over its banned weapons programme has surged in recent months following a flurry of missile launches and its most powerful nuclear test yet.

Seoul has responded with President Moon Jae-in’s government proposing holding talks on January 9 at the border "truce" village of Panmunjom, which would be the first formal gathering between the two sides since 2015. The talks are to discuss “matters of mutual interest” including Kim’s suggestion that the reclusive nation could participate in the Olympics, something Moon has long pushed for.

Trump has expressed scepticism about Kim’s call for talks, with an administration official saying North Korea is aiming to drive a wedge in the US-South Korean alliance

However, Kim’s New Year address included a warning to the US that he has a “nuclear button” on his table, prompting a furious response from Trump via Twitter.

“North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un just stated that the ‘Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times.’ Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!” he wrote.

Trump’s remarks came as his ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, dismissed Seoul’s offer to hold talks, calling it a “band-aid”. US state department spokesman Heather Nauert also warned that Kim “may be trying to drive a wedge of some sort between the two nations — between our nation and the Republic of Korea”.

Trump has expressed scepticism about Kim’s call for talks, with an administration official saying North Korea is aiming to drive a wedge in the US-South Korean alliance. The US wants to avoid anything that might undermine its pressure campaign of sanctions and military threats to halt Kim’s nuclear programme.

Moon’s government has said it’s consulting on the talks with the US, which has about 30,000 troops in South Korea and provides a nuclear deterrent. A Trump administration official said that the US is in close touch with South Korea on a unified response to North Korea. But the rapprochement between the North and South seemed to be moving ahead on Wednesday, with Kim welcoming Seoul’s support for his overtures, according to Ri Son-gwon, the head of North Korea’s agency handling inter-Korean affairs.

The two countries have been divided by a demilitarised zone since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War. The hotline remained operational until February 2016, with operators from both countries checking it twice a day. The channel was shut down when relations deteriorated over a dispute involving the Kaesong industrial complex, which was jointly operated by the countries. Seoul welcomed Pyongyang’s decision to re-open the hotline as “very significant”, with chief presidential press secretary Yoon Young-chan saying “it creates an environment where communication will be possible at all times”.

Following Kim’s call to re-open the hotline, several stocks connected with North Korea gained. J Estina, a jewellery and accessory maker, jumped 5.1%. Its factory in the jointly run Gaeseong industrial park has been closed for almost two years.

Moon, however, welcomed Kim’s olive branch on Tuesday as a 'positive response' to Seoul’s hopes that the Pyeongchang Olympics would be a 'groundbreaking opportunity for peace'

Moon has long favoured engagement with the nuclear-armed North, but the Trump administration insists the regime must give up its weapons drive before any negotiations can take place. Haley told reporters that Washington could not take the talks seriously “if they don’t do something to ban all nuclear weapons in North Korea”.

North Korea has shrugged off a raft of new sanctions and heightened rhetoric from Washington as it drives forward with its weapons programme, which it says is for defence against US aggression. Pyongyang claims it needs nuclear weapons to protect itself from a hostile Washington and has striven to create a warhead capable of targeting the US mainland with an atomic warhead.

Moon, however, welcomed Kim’s olive branch on Tuesday as a “positive response” to Seoul’s hopes that the Pyeongchang Olympics would be a “groundbreaking opportunity for peace”.

‘Honest attitude’

Besides discussing the Olympics, South Korea is looking to improve overall relations with North Korea during the discussions. While Kim may seek an easing of sanctions and the cancellation of joint military exercises between the US and South Korea, analysts said easier measures would include humanitarian assistance and re-uniting separated families.

Earlier on Wednesday, Kim had welcomed Moon’s follow-up steps for talks between the two countries in a statement on the Korean Central News Agency that included none of the usual insults that North Korea has often used to describe its southern neighbour.

“We will try to keep close communications with the south Korean side from sincere stand and honest attitude, true to the intention of our supreme leadership, and deal with the practical matters related to the dispatch of our delegation,” KCNA said. It called the talks “the first meaningful and good step for improved north-south relations”.

Bloomberg and AFP

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