North Korea reopened a cross-border communication link with South Korea on Wednesday, the government in Seoul said, in the latest sign of Pyongyang's eagerness to improve inter-Korean ties amid heightened tensions over its nuclear and missile programs.
The reopening of the suspended hotline located at the truce village of Panmunjeom was announced earlier in the day by Ri Son Gwon, head of the North's state-level agency dealing with inter-Korean affairs, via a state-run news agency.
South Korea's Unification Ministry said in a statement that the government "welcomes that North Korea responded to our proposal to normalize the Panmunjeom communications channel."
(Ministry of Unification)
"Further procedures regarding inter-Korean government talks proposed yesterday will be discussed through the communications channel," it said.
The move comes one day after the South proposed a meeting between high-level officials next Tuesday to discuss North Korean participation in the Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang next month.
The reopening of the liaison channel at the tense border area -- after a hiatus of nearly two years -- was directed by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, according to Ri, the Korean Central News Agency reported.
The cascade of cross-border developments began on New Year's Day when Kim said in a nationally televised address that his country is open to talks with South Korea about its participation in the Pyeongchang Olympics.
Communication channels were severed by North Korea in February 2016 following Seoul's decision to suspend operations of a jointly run industrial complex just north of the border in protest against Pyongyang's fourth nuclear test and a subsequent long-range ballistic missile test.
On Tuesday, South Korean President Moon Jae In welcomed Kim's remarks in the New Year address and directed his government to prepare for the early resumption of inter-Korean dialogue and lay the groundwork for the North's participation in the fast-approaching Olympics, which will be held Feb. 9 to 25.
Ri said Kim "gave an affirmative and high estimation" of the South Korean move and instructed party and government organs, including the National Sports Guidance Committee, to work with South Korean authorities "out of sincere stand and honest attitude."
Kim also directed the reopening of the Panmunjeom liaison channel to communicate with the South in a "timely" fashion about the opening of talks over the dispatch of athletes to the upcoming Olympics, according to the official.
The olive branch extended by the North Korean leader stands in stark contrast to the escalating war of words between him and U.S. President Donald Trump.
In the same speech on Monday, Kim said a nuclear button is always on his desk for use if North Korea is threatened by the United States.
Trump shot back on Twitter the following day, calling North Korea a "depleted and food starved regime" before going on to say the U.S. button is "a much bigger and more powerful one than (Kim's), and my button works."
Also Tuesday, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley took a cautious stance on possible inter-Korea talks, saying the United States "won't take any of the talks seriously if they don't do something to ban all nuclear weapons in North Korea."
"North Korea can talk with anyone they want, but the U.S. is not going to recognize it or acknowledge it until they agree to ban the nuclear weapons that they have," Haley also said at a news conference.
The Korea Times newspaper quoted a Unification Ministry official as saying that immediately after 3:30 p.m., the time when North Korea said it would restore the communication channel, liaison officers of the two Koreas at Panmunjeom spoke over the hotline.
"The North Korean side made the call first, and both sides checked whether the phone and fax were working properly for about 20 minutes," the official said.
But besides the technical checks, the two sides did not mention the high-level talks which South Korea proposed to hold next Tuesday, he said.