North Korea reconnects military hotline to South Korea

A South Korean soldier patrols at the customs, immigration and quarantine office of the Inter-Korean Transit Office near the border village of Panmunjom in Paju, South Korea on Aug 22, 2013. North Korea on Friday, Sept 6, 2013, reconnected a mil
A South Korean soldier patrols at the customs, immigration and quarantine office of the Inter-Korean Transit Office near the border village of Panmunjom in Paju, South Korea on Aug 22, 2013. North Korea on Friday, Sept 6, 2013, reconnected a military hotline to the South that was cut earlier this year at the height of cross-border tensions, Seoul's government said. -- FILE PHOTO: AP

SEOUL (AFP) - North Korea on Friday reconnected a military hotline to the South that was cut earlier this year at the height of cross-border tensions, Seoul's government said.

The line - one of the two remaining inter-Korea military hotlines - was disabled in late March weeks after the North's third nuclear test and the following month a joint industrial zone was shut down.

The North in early March had cut off another line at the border truce village of Panmunjom before reopening it in July when relations showed signs of thawing.

Cross-border army hotlines in other parts of the country were severed years ago when tensions soared and left unrestored since then.

The latest reestablishment of the hotline paves the way for the reopening of the Kaesong industrial zone, as it is largely used to provide security guarantees when South Korean businessmen and workers visit the complex.

The North made the first call to the South via the hotline since March on Friday morning, said Seoul's Unification Ministry, which handles cross-border affairs.

"Reception is still a bit shaky but at least the connection has been restored," a ministry spokesman told AFP.

It followed an agreement on Thursday at a meeting of the inter-Korea committee tasked with reviving the shuttered Kaesong complex.

The ministry spokesman said businessmen from the South would be able to visit the zone - 10km north of the border - to check on infrastructure and facilities left dormant for months but did not give a timeframe.

In April, as tensions increased following the North's nuclear test, Pyongyang effectively shut down operations at the industrial zone by withdrawing the 53,000 North Korean workers employed at the 123 South Korean plants there. Seoul subsequently withdrew all its managers.

The two Koreas agreed last month to work together to reopen the complex - a valued source of hard currency for the impoverished North - after Pyongyang changed tack to make a flurry of conciliatory gestures.

Separately on Friday, a senior United States official said North Korea's nuclear programme was a "driver of instability" in the region, urging Pyongyang to comply with its earlier commitment to denuclearisation.

Mr Daniel Russel, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific affairs, made the remarks after he met South Korean officials including First Vice-Foreign Minister Kim Kyou Hyun.

"The focus must be on eliminating the North Korean nuclear programme which constitutes the driver of instability in the region and is vastly out of sync with the developments not only in Asia but in the international community", Mr Russel told reporters.

Six-nation talks aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear programme have been stalled since late 2008.

In another sign of rapprochement, Seoul has approved the first visit to the North by South Korean athletes in five years.

The group of 41 weightlifters and sports officials will visit Pyongyang to compete in the Asian Cup and Interclub Weightlifting Championship to be held from Sept 12 to 17, the Unification Ministry said on Friday.

Pyongyang promised for the first time to display the South Korean flag and play its national anthem during any medal ceremony, it said.

The two Koreas remain technically at war after the 1950-1953 Korean War ended with an armistice instead of a peace treaty.