Relations between the North and the South have been more strained than usual lately, but an agreement to discuss reopening a joint factory venture could shift the mood in the region.
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North and South Korea have reached an agreement to hold talks on reopening a joint industrial complex that was shuttered in April, the first step toward cooperation – after countless steps in the opposite direction – since it was closed.
Pyongyang had rejected all previous offers to discuss reopening the Kaesong industrial complex. Observers speculate that its acquiescence now signals it is feeling dangerously isolated from China, a vital ally that has indicated frustration with North Korean intransigence and warmed up to US-led efforts to isolate Pyongyang.
Daniel Pinkston, a senior analyst for the International Crisis Group covering Northeast Asia, said that when North Korean and Chinese officials met last month, China may not have been "as generous as the North Koreans have been expecting in terms of aid... trade and investment," CNN reports.
“North Korea has made this conciliatory gesture earlier than expected, and it seems that they are more desperate to boost the economy than anticipated,” said Jo Dong Ho, North Korean Studies professor at Ewha Womans University, according to Bloomberg. Chinese pressure has left the North with “no choice but to cooperate with the South to get the economy going."
Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea expert at Seoul's Dongguk University, told the Associated Press that Pyongyang's announcement is timed for US-China talks scheduled for later this week. "North Korea is making it easier for China to persuade the US to get softer on Pyongyang," Koh said.
“The scheduled meeting of Obama and Xi Jinping is an important fact in understanding this gesture,” said Kim Yong Hyun, a Seoul-based professor of North Korean Studies at Dongguk University, according to Bloomberg. “It once again shows that China is our key when it comes to North Korea strategies.”
Pyongyang's agreement to talks may also be a bid to soothe a Beijing frustrated by having to defend Pyongyang. In a separate report, AP reports that China is "taking a tougher stance on North Korea, as the US hoped it would."
It has supported tighter United Nations sanctions in response to the February nuclear test and stepped up border inspections. Most notably, a leading Chinese state bank shut accounts of North Korea’s Foreign Trade Bank, its main foreign exchange institution.
Two weeks ago, China hosted a top North Korean envoy, a visit that Brookings Institution scholar Cheng Li says was expedited in advance of the U.S.-China summit that starts Friday. The North has since adopted a less confrontational stance and declared a willingness to return to the negotiating table.
Chinese academics are also more willing now to openly consider the prospect of a North Korean collapse.
But in China, talk of a North Korean collapse is no longer the taboo subject it once was. Academics are increasingly willing to discuss it and a former top US general said he has detected, during informal meetings, a willingness of Chinese officials to consider such discussions.
While the more critical recent tone of Chinese scholars — and their willingness to discuss once-forbidden issues like reunification — is probably not the position of China’s leaders, it reflects the government’s frustrations with North Korea and could be intended to send a message for it not to push China too far, said former senior State Department official Evans Revere.
But, the AP report notes, China "is not taking steps that could hasten the end of the Kim regime, such as cutting supplies."
South Korean news agency Yonhap reports that if the talks happen, they will be the first time officials from the two countries meet directly since February 2011. The North has preferred private talks through nongovernmental channels such as businessmen, but the South has been emphatic in its demands for government-to-government talks.
Yonhap says "all outstanding issues that have strained cross-border relations" will be on the table, including the disconnecting of the hotline between the North and South earlier this year.
The Associated Press reports that North Korea's acceptance of talks via a statement in state media was its first public response to the South's offer of talks on Kaesong in April.
The closure of the complex came on the heels of tightened UN sanctions after North Korea's third nuclear test in February and the holding of regular US-South Korea military drills. The North pulled its 50,000 workers from the complex and blocked deliveries. South Korean workers eventually departed as well.
Agreeing to talks could indicate that "the cost of closure of Kaesong is greater than [the North] had anticipated," Mr. Pinkston said, according to CNN. Launched during the "sunshine" era of North-South engagement as a symbol of cooperation, it provides inexpensive labor for South Korean companies and critical foreign currency for isolated North Korea, largely shut out of the global financial system by sanctions.
"There's political symbolism, economic aspects and nationalistic Pan-Korean elements wrapped up in it as well. The loss if Kaesong is not reopened is more than material," Pinkston said in an interview with the Guardian.