South and North Korea restore hot line, pave way for direct talks

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SEOUL, South Korea -- South and North Korea restored a cross-border hot line Friday, with the South proposing that logistical talks be held on the border Sunday to arrange the two Koreas' first Cabinet minister-level meeting in six years.

The development came after North Korea, in a sudden change of heart, proposed Thursday that the two Koreas hold their first government-to-government dialogue in years. The surprise overture unleashed a rapid series of proposals and counterproposals that raised hopes of a thaw on the divided Korean Peninsula after months of bellicose rhetoric.

Within hours, South Korea accepted the North Korean initiative and proposed to hold a Cabinet-level meeting Wednesday in the South Korean capital, Seoul.

On Friday, the North welcomed the quick response from the South and suggested that the two sides first hold talks Sunday in the North Korean border town of Kaesong to discuss the proposed Cabinet-level meeting. Later Friday, South Korea made a counterproposal that the talks be held not in Kaesong, but on the South Korean side of Panmunjom, a village on the inter-Korean border where the truce ending the 1950-53 Korean War was signed.

The counteroffer was delivered to North Korea through a Red Cross hot line. The telephone line was the first restored among several cross-border communications lines North Korea had unilaterally cut off recently in anger over joint South Korean-U.S. military exercises in March.

In their proposals for talks, both Koreas said they wanted to discuss reopening a shuttered joint industrial complex in Kaesong.

The 8-year-old complex, where 123 South Korean factories employed 53,000 North Korean workers, had been the last and best-known symbol of inter-Korean cooperation until the North suddenly pulled out all its workers a month ago, citing military tensions.

South Korea later withdrew its factory managers.

It has since indicated that it would not mind keeping the factory park -- a key source of hard currency for the North Korean regime -- closed unless the North took steps to convince the South that it would never again use political tensions as a pretext to close the joint economic project.

That attitude was reflected in the South's reluctance to send a delegation to Kaesong, a move that could have been seen as a capitulation in the North, and the South's proposal that the two sides meet instead in the neutral border village of Panmunjom.

"Preventing the repetition of the situation of the Kaesong Industrial Zone will be a key agenda item" in inter-Korean talks, Seo Ho, a Unification Ministry official in charge of issues related to the factory park, said Friday at a forum in Seoul.

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