N. Korea to reopen hotline, pushes back on talks with South

SEOUL (AFP) - North Korea said Friday it would restore an official hotline with rival South Korea, but pushed back at Seoul's proposal of ministerial-level talks to be held in Seoul next week.

Pyongyang's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea (CPRK) said the hotline - suspended by the North in March as military tensions flared - would be restored from 2:00 pm (1:00 pm SIngapore time).

Restoration of the Red Cross link used for government-to-government communications will facilitate discussions over proposed official talks, as the two Koreas seek to dial down tensions after a lengthy crisis triggered by the North's nuclear programme.

But in a sign of the horse-trading to come, a CPRK spokesman said the talks should take place on North Korean territory and at a lower level than the dialogue proposed by Seoul.

"It is our view that working contact between the authorities of the North and the South is necessary prior to ministerial-level talks proposed by the South side," the spokesman said in a statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency.

Instead of the South Korean capital, the talks venue should be Kaesong - the joint North-South industrial zone that lies just over the border in North Korea, the spokesman said.

The Kaesong complex, established in 2004 as a symbol of inter-Korean cooperation, was the most high-profile casualty of the recent tensions.

Operations ground to a halt after the North pulled all its 53,000 workers out in early April. The South withdrew its managers and officials soon afterwards.

Resuming operations there is one of the main issues on the agenda for the proposed talks.

The CPRK spokesman also proposed that the talks be held on June 9, three days earlier than the date proposed by Seoul.

South Korea's Unification Ministry said it was "studying" the counter-offer.

The North's offer, which came just ahead of a US-China summit, proposed discussions on a range of commercial and humanitarian issues, from reopening Kaesong to resuming cross-border family reunions.

US President Barack Obama and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping will hold a summit in California on Friday and Saturday, at which North Korea is likely to be a leading topic.

China, the North's sole major ally and economic benefactor, has been under pressure from the United States to restrain its neighbour and responded positively to the news.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon - a former foreign minister of South Korea - also welcomed the talks announcement.

"This is an encouraging development towards reducing tensions and promoting peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula," his spokesman said in a statement.