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North Korea reopens border hotline with South

Yonhap/Associated Press

A South Korean government official checks the direct communications hotline to talk with the North Korean side at the border village of Panmunjom in Paju, South Korea, Wednesday.

By Choe Sang-hun New York Times 

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea reopened a border hotline with South Korea on Wednesday, restoring a channel of direct dialogue and signaling a possible thaw in relations between the two Koreas after years of hair-trigger tensions.

The return of the telephone hotline at the village of Panmunjom, which straddles the Demilitarized Zone, the world’s most heavily guarded border, came two days after North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, made a rare overture to the South.

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In his New Year’s Day speech Monday, Kim continued his nuclear threat against Washington, saying he had a “nuclear button” ready to launch a weapon against any target in the United States. But he also proposed negotiations with South Korea to discuss easing military tensions on the divided Korean Peninsula and his country’s possible participation in the Winter Olympics, which are being held in the South Korean town of Pyeongchang next month.

The fast-moving political developments have given new hope for a warming of ties between the two long-standing enemies.

On Tuesday, South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, who has called for dialogue with the North since his inauguration in May, quickly embraced Kim’s offer of talks. His government proposed that high-level negotiators from both Koreas meet at Panmunjom next Tuesday to discuss the North’s Olympic participation.

Seizing on Kim’s outreach, South Korea also urged the North on Tuesday to reopen the Panmunjom hotline so that both sides could start preparations for high-level talks, a proposal the North embraced Wednesday.

“We will connect with the South with a sincere and diligent attitude,” Ri Son Kwon, a senior North Korean official, said Wednesday in a statement on state-run television, announcing the hotline’s reopening. “We once again express our sincere hope that the Pyeongchang Olympics will be successful.”

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On Tuesday, when South Korea proposed high-level talks, there was no way to deliver its proposal directly to the North. So, Cho Myoung-gyon, a South Korean Cabinet minister in charge of relations with the North, held a news conference to read out the South’s proposal.

Ri’s television appearance was the North’s response to Cho’s news conference. Ri is chairman of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland, a North Korean agency that handles relations with the South.