Investigators look inside a recently opened container holding military equipment aboard the North Korean-flagged freighter Chong Chon Gang in Colon City, Panama, Wednesday.
By Ian Johnston, Staff Writer, NBC News
Leading Republican and Democrat senators called on President Barack Obama to act over a Cuban shipment of weapons and equipment to North Korea, as talks got under way about migration between the U.S. and Cuba.
A North Korean ship was stopped by Panama as it headed home with a cargo of rockets, missile parts and two Cold War-era fighter jets hidden among sacks of brown sugar.
United Nations sanctions ban the export of most military equipment to North Korea, though Havana said it was sending “obsolete” hardware to be repaired and then returned to Cuba.
Sen. Robert Menendez, the Democrat who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement that the shipment was “a grave violation of international treaties.”
“Weapons transfers from one communist regime to another hidden under sacks of sugar are not accidental occurrences, and reinforces the necessity that Cuba remain on the State Department’s list of countries that sponsor state terrorism,” he said.
A ship stocked with weapons and missiles was intercepted near the Panama Canal traveling from Cuba to North Korea.
“In addition to possible violations of Panamanian law, the shipment almost certainly violated United Nations Security Council sanctions on shipments of weapons to North Korea and as such, I call on the Obama administration to submit this case to the U.N. Security Council for review,” he added.
Sen. Marco Rubio, who gave the Republican response to Obama’s State of the Union address this year and is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry that the discovery of the shipment should “finally prompt the administration to re-calibrate its misguided and naïve Cuba policy.”
He said the U.S. should “immediately reverse its January 2011 decision easing restrictions on people-to-people travel and remittances sent to Cuba; as well as immediately halt granting visas to Cuban government officials.”
Rubio said Cuba’s actions were a “flagrant violation” of U.N. sanctions and “the latest reminder of the true nature of the Cuban regime.”
“I urge the Administration to take meaningful action to send a clear message that Cuban collusion with North Korea to undermine the international nonproliferation system carries heavy consequences,” he said.
Like Menendez, he also said the U.S. should raise the matter at the U.N. Security Council.
Both Rubio and Menendez are Cuban-Americans known as tough critics of Cuba's communist government.
Their comments, on Wednesday, came as Cuba’s delegation to Washington issued a statement saying talks with their U.S. counterparts took place in a “climate of respect.”
“A review was made of the evolution of the migration accords in force between the two countries and the main results of the individual and joint actions undertaken by the Parties to cope with illegal migration and alien smuggling,” the Cuban statement said.
It said also Cuba had ratified protocols to prevent people trafficking and smuggling of migrants.
U.S. officials said that they had used the meeting to again press Cuba to release jailed American contractor Alan Gross.
Gross is serving a 15-year sentence for installing Internet networks for Cuban Jews as part of a U.S. program that Cuba considers subversive.
Gross' arrest in late 2009 and sentencing in March 2011 halted a brief thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations after Obama took office in January 2009.
U.S. officials have said they plan to raise the issue of the weapons shipment to Cuba soon.
Meanwhile, international vessel tracking monitor IHS Fairplay said that it had established that five North Korean cargo ships had made similar journeys since 2010, including the O Un Chong Nyon Ho, which docked in Havana, Cuba, in May last year.
Panamanian workers stand atop sacks of sugar inside a container of the North Korean ship.
By Erin McClam and Jeff Black, NBC News
North Korea is demanding the release its cargo ship carrying rockets, missile parts and even a couple of Cold War-era fighter jets, which was seized by Panama.
The suspicious cargo, loaded in Cuba, was found concealed under sacks of brown sugar.
North Korea’s foreign ministry called Panama’s search and seizure of the freighter under the pretext it was carrying drugs “fiction” and said the shipment of the cargo was a legitimate business deal.
“The Panamanian investigation authorities rashly attacked and detained the captain and crewmen of the ship on the plea of 'drug investigation' and searched its cargo but did not discover any drug," North Korea's Foreign Ministry spokesman said.
"This cargo is nothing but aging weapons which are to send back to Cuba after overhauling them according to a legitimate contract," the spokesman was quoted as saying by the official KCNA news agency.
"The Panamanian authorities should take a step to let the apprehended crewmen and ship leave without delay."
The United States has said any shipment of arms or related material aboard the freighter would violate at least three U.N. resolutions.
But senior U.S. officials told NBC News the Obama administration wants the Cuban connection to the cargo kept separate from U.S.-Cuba relations, especially in light of the restart of long awaited "migration talks" between the two countries. They are the first such talks since 2011.
At least two different rooms on the Chong Chon Gang had pictures of President Kim Il Sung - the founder of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – and his late son Kim Jong Il.
Both sets of photographs of the smiling, late dictators were given pride of place, high on the walls.
Carlos Jasso / Reuters
Portraits of crew members are seen in one of the rooms inside the Chong Chon Gang on Tuesday.
Carlos Jasso / Reuters
Portraits of late North Korean leaders Kim Jong Il and Kim Il-sung are seen in one of the rooms on the Chong Chon Gang on Tuesday.
Carlos Jasso / Reuters
Part of a green missile-shaped object is seen aboard the Chong Chon Gang on Tuesday.
There were also photographs of the 35-strong crew, who have been detained in Fort Sherman, a former U.S. military base in Panama.
Other images from the ship showed more of the military equipment that was on its way from Cuba to North Korea -- possibly in breach of United Nations sanctions.
Cuba’s government said that the ship was carrying “240 metric tons of obsolete defensive weapons -- two anti-aircraft missile complexes Volga and Pechora, nine missiles in parts and spares, two Mig-21 Bis and 15 motors for this type of airplane, all of it manufactured in the mid-20th century -- to be repaired and returned to Cuba."
Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli said late Monday that “sophisticated missile equipment” had been found.
The U.N. is set to investigate the situation but one expert said he thought Cuba’s actions were a breach of the embargo.
James Hardy, Asia-Pacific editor of respected military affairs magazine Jane’s Defence Weekly, said the equipment Cuba said was on the ship was “pretty well covered” by U.N. Security Council Resolution 1874.
The resolution says all member states shall “prevent the direct or indirect supply, sale or transfer” to North Korea of “any battle tanks, armored combat vehicles, large caliber artillery systems, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, missiles or missile systems as defined for the purpose of the United Nations Register on Conventional Arms, or related materiel including spare parts.”
Arnulfo Franco / AP
Military equipment is seen in containers aboard the North Korean-flagged vessel on Tuesday.
Hardy said that the “argument that it is just for repair doesn’t wash – it would be covered by ‘direct or indirect supply, sale or transfer.’”
“So in short, Cuba appears to be in breach – and pretty heavily,” he said.
Hardy added that the presence of MiG-21s in the shipment was “particularly intriguing given that North Korea has been trying to acquire MiG-21 engines and spare parts via a former Mongolian Air Force commander.”
However, he said that it was “probable” that Cuba was looking to have some of the equipment refurbished by North Korea.
“The S-125 Neva/Pechora … and S-75 Volga-M … systems are both in North Korean service … but Pyongyang is also believed to have more up-to-date systems in service, including an S-300 'look-alike' long-range surface-to-air missile system shown at a 2012 military parade,” Hardy added.
Alejandro Bolivar / EPA
Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli (left) speaks with officials during a tour of the ship on Tuesday.
Arnulfo Franco / AP
A crew member sleeps on a mattress aboard the seized ship on Tuesday.
Alejandro Bolivar / EPA
A group of men work clearing a container hidden in the North Korean flagged ship Chong Chon Gang, docked at the pier in Manzanillo, Colon, Panama, on Tuesday.
The United Nations said in a statement Tuesday that it expected Panama would notify the U.N.’s committee on North Korean sanctions and that an expert panel “created specifically to investigate such incidents will be conducting a thorough review.”
“If it is confirmed that the vessel was carrying arms or related materiel and that the shipment was part of a purchase or sale to or from the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, then there would indeed be a breach of the U.N. sanctions regime relating to that country,” the U.N. statement said.
A shipment of weapons system components hidden in sugar containers was intercepted on its way from Cuba to North Korea after being searched on suspicion of drugs. NBC's Mark Potter reports.
By Ian Johnston and F. Brinley Bruton, NBC News
A North Korean cargo ship was stopped near the Panama Canal and searched on suspicion of drugs, but it was carrying something sweeter — the apparent parts of a surface-to-air missile system, hidden inside containers of brown sugar.
The State Department said any shipment of arms or related material aboard the freighter would violate at least three U.N. resolutions.
The ship was on its way home from Cuba. Panamanian authorities said the captain of the ship tried to kill himself after officials boarded it Monday and began searching the containers that were supposed to contain the sugar.
Courtesy IHS Maritime
The captain of the North Korean ship Chong Chon Gang tried to kill himself as the vessel was searched, according to Panama's President Ricardo Martinelli.
Independent defense analysts and U.S. officials said Tuesday that the equipment appeared to be a radar control system for surface-to-air missiles, and that the behavior of the crew suggested the equipment was being shipped covertly.
But Gordon Chang, the author of “Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes on the World,” said it didn’t matter what was in the cargo hold.
“What’s important is that the North Koreans were able to smuggle dangerous equipment into our hemisphere,” he said.
Panama said it seized the ship on suspicion of drugs as it headed for the Panama Canal. Reuters reported that Panama had also detained 35 members of the crew.
“The Panama Canal is a canal of peace, not of war,” he said.
A State Department spokesman said that the United States supported Panama’s decision to seize the ship and offered Washington’s help if Panama needs it.
In a statement from Cuba's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, officials said the vessel was carrying "240 metric tons of obsolete defensive weapons -- two anti-aircraft missile complexes Volga and Pechora, nine missiles in parts and spares, two Mig-21 Bis and 15 motors for this type of airplane, all of it manufactured in the mid-20th century -- to be repaired and returned to Cuba."
"The Republic of Cuba reiterates its firm and unwavering commitment with peace, disarmament, including nuclear disarmament, and respect for International Law," the statement added.
Staff at IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, a respected military affairs magazine, said the picture tweeted by Panama's president appeared to show a radar system for surface-to-air missiles — specifically an SNR-75 Fan Song fire-control radar system for a family of missiles known as SA-2.
U.S. officials confirmed the model to NBC News. The SA-2 is a Soviet-era system in Cuba since the 1960s and was the class of missile used to shoot down American pilot Gary Powers’ U-2 spy plane over the Soviet Union in May 1960.
The magazine said one possibility was that Cuba was sending the equipment to North Korea for an upgrade, and that it sent along the cargo of sugar as a payment for the services.
But under a second scenario, the magazine said, the equipment might have been on its way to North Korea to fortify the country’s existing air defense network, which is dense but based on obsolete weapons, missiles and radars.
U.S. State Department Spokesman Patrick Ventrell responds to reports that a North Korean ship has been inspected in Panama and contained hidden weapons.
Jane’s said that North Korea’s high-altitude SA-2 surface-to-air missiles “are ineffective in a modern electronic warfare environment.”
Richard Meade, editor of the British shipping journal Lloyd’s List, said the detained vessel was called Chong Chon Gang. He described it as a general cargo ship owned by the Chongchongang Shipping Co., outside Pyongyang.
Meade said he was still checking the Chong Chon Gang’s movements — the Lloyd’s List Intelligence service tracks ships’ movements via satellite — but initial information showed the vessel was in China on Jan. 25, then Russia on April 12.
It then arrived on the Pacific coast of Panama on May 30, and passed through the Panama Canal on June 1.
Richard Hurley, senior maritime data specialist with IHS Aerospace, Defence and Maritime, said the ship’s destination was listed as Havana, Cuba, when it passed through the Panama Canal on June 1.
He said it was lower in the water when it returned to Panama, according to data normally provided by the ship’s staff and supplied to satellite tracking services, possibly because its cargo was heavier.
Both Meade and Hurley said the ship did not appear on satellite tracking after leaving Panama. Meade said the ship could have turned off its tracking device. Hurley added that satellite tracking sometimes fails in the area, dense with maritime traffic.
The El Universal newspaper reported that the crew and captain were taken to Fort Sherman, a former American military base now controlled by Panama.
Minister of Security Jose Raul Mulino told the paper that if it was confirmed as a case of weapons smuggling Panama would consult with the United Nations to establish whether the crew should be handed over to an international body.
Last October, North Korea claimed that the U.S. mainland was “within the scope” of its missiles, although military officials have told Congress that the United States could intercept a North Korean missile.
NBC News Senior Investigative Producer Robert Windrem contributed to this report. Reuters also contributed.
By Elizabeth Shim and Youkyung Lee, Associated Press
SEOUL, South Korea -- South Korea said multiple government and private sector websites were hacked on Tuesday's anniversary of the start of the Korean War, and Seoul issued a cyberattack alert warning officials and citizens to take security measures.
Government websites, including the one for the presidential Blue House, and some media sites were attacked, according to a statement from the science ministry. The statement said the sites were hacked and that a team was investigating.
The government alert is meant to warn officials and citizens of possible cyberattacks and urge them to enhance their server and computer security measures.
The shutdown happened on the 63rd anniversary of the beginning of the Korean War. It wasn't immediately clear who was responsible, but both Koreas have traded accusations of cyberattacks in recent years.
South Korean officials say that North Korea orchestrated a cyberattack in March that shut down tens of thousands of computers and servers at South Korean broadcasters and banks. Seoul said in April that an initial investigation pointed to a North Korean military-run spy agency as the culprit.
North Korea in recent weeks has pushed for diplomatic talks with Washington. But tensions ran high on the Korean Peninsula in March and April, with North Korea delivering regular threats over U.N. sanctions and U.S.-South Korean military drills.
Investigators detected similarities between the March cyberattack and past hacking attributed to the North Korean spy agency, including the recycling of 30 previously used malware programs — out of a total of 76 used in the attack, South Korea's internet security agency said.
The March 20 cyberattack struck 48,000 computers and servers, hampering banks for two to five days. Officials have said that no bank records or personal data were compromised. Staffers at TV broadcasters KBS, MBC and YTN were unable to log on to news systems for several days, although programming continued during that period. No government, military or infrastructure targets were affected.
South Korea's National Intelligence Service said North Korea was behind a denial of service attack in 2009 that crippled dozens of websites, including that of the presidential office. Seoul also believes the North was responsible for cyberattacks on servers of Nonghyup bank in 2011 and Joongang Ilbo, a national daily newspaper, in 2012.
North Korea also blamed South Korea and the United States for cyberattacks in March that temporarily disabled Internet access and websites in North Korea, where a small number of people can go online.
Experts believe North Korea trains large teams of cyber warriors and that the South and its allies should be prepared against possible attacks on key infrastructure and military systems. If the inter-Korean conflict were to move into cyberspace, South Korea's deeply wired society would have more to lose than North Korea's, which largely remains offline.
White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough appears on CBS's "Face the Nation" on Sunday in Washington, DC.
By Daniel Arkin, Staff Writer, NBC News
The Obama administration on Sunday signaled that it would be open to holding nuclear and security talks with North Korea as long as those discussions are “real" and "based on them living up to their obligations" — including denuclearization.
White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, appearing on CBS’ “Face the Nation” a day after Pyongyang proposed high-level talks with Washington, said the North must dismantle its nuclear program before the U.S. agrees to face-to-face conversations.
“Those talks have to be real,” McDonough said. “We’ll judge them by their actions, not by the nice words that we heard yesterday.”
The National Security Council struck a similar chord Sunday, saying the Obama administration wants “credible negotiations” with North Korea.
North Korea must live up to “its obligations to the world” and observe United Nations resolutions, National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said.
Pyongyang’s top government body on Saturday offered to hold “senior-level” talks with Washington after months of acrimony between the two governments.
“In order to ease tensions on the Korean peninsula and to achieve regional peace and safety, we propose to hold high-level talks between (North Korea) and the United States,” said a spokesman for the North’s National Defense Commission in a statement released to the state-owned KCNA news agency Sunday.
The United States, along with Japan and South Korea, are expected to discuss the North's invitation in Washington this week, according to The Associated Press.
Hostility between the two nations has swelled in recent months, following the North’s launch of a long-range rocket in December and a nuclear test in February.
Acrimony began to lessen in May and June, as Pyongyang extended a hesitant olive branch to the U.S. and South Korea.
Pyongyang’s sudden interest in closer ties with the South and friendlier relations with the U.S. may stem from pressure from Beijing, as some security analysts have speculated.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and President Barack Obama signaled their agreement on the weapons issue at a recent summit in California, saying that North Korea’s nuclear program poses a significant threat to the international community.
North Korea's top government body is proposing high-level nuclear and security talks with the United States days after a planned meeting with rival South Korea collapsed.
The National Defense Commission said Sunday that the talks should ease tensions and achieve peace and security on the Korean Peninsula.
North Korea has issued a series of angry statements since U.N. sanctions were imposed after a December rocket launch and a February nuclear test. There have been threats of nuclear war by the North, followed by South Korean vows of counterstrikes.
Outside analysts say North Korea often expresses interest in talks after raising tension with provocative behavior in order to win outside concessions.
Washington's top worry is North Korea's nuclear weapons program. Pyongyang is estimated to have a handful of crude nuclear devices.
Chinese security officers and officials at the South Korean Embassy in Beijing scuffle with a North Korea asylum seeker near the building's main gate in this 2002 photo.
By Chris Brummitt, The Associated Press
SEOUL, South Korea - North Korea's prison population has swelled in recent years with those caught fleeing the country under a crackdown on defections by young leader Kim Jong Un, according to defectors living in South Korea and researchers who study Pyongyang's notorious network of labor camps and detention centers.
Soon after he succeeded his father as North Korean leader, Kim is believed to have tightened security on the country's borders and pressured Pyongyang's neighbor and main ally, China, to repatriate anyone caught on its side of the frontier.
"They are tightening the noose," said Insung Kim, a researcher from the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights.
"Forced repatriation from China is a pathway to pain, suffering, and violence," according to "Hidden Gulags," an exhaustive 2012 study on the prison camps by veteran human rights researcher and author David Hawk. "Arbitrary detention, torture and forced labor are inflicted upon many repatriated North Koreans."
In 2003, Park Seong-hyeok, then 7, and his parents were arrested trying to reach Mongolia from China and sent back to North Korea. He ended up at a prison in the northern city of Chongjin, where he was packed in with other kids, some of them homeless children rounded up off the streets.
"I couldn't even tell whether I was alive," Park said. "We were provided five pieces of potato a day, each about the size of a fingernail."
After a few months, he managed to escape after his uncle bribed the guards. With the help of relatives, he made it to South Korea, but he assumes his parents, who he has not seen in 10 years, remain imprisoned in the North.
Lee Jin-Man / AP
Park Seong-hyeok, 18, says he spent years in a North Korea prison as a child.
In the 18 months since Kim took power, any hopes the 20-something ruler would usher in a new era of human rights reforms have been squelched.
North Korea considers those who leave the country to be guilty of treason and subject to up to five years of manual labor. In addition, the penal code states if the nature of the defection is "serious" — taken by most researchers to mean if the defector gets the help of South Korean or American Christian missionary groups as opposed to trying to reach China for work purposes — the defector risks an additional charge of anti-state activities that could mean life in prison or even death.
North Koreans considered hostile to the government can spend the rest of their lives, along with their families, in one of at least five sprawling labor camps or colonies that encompass fields, factories, mines and housing blocks.
Defectors may end up in those camps, but are typically held first in other detention facilities close to the border, just as brutal but more resembling traditional penitentiaries, according to human rights groups. Still, at least one labor camp, Yodok, now has a special section for those repatriated from China that houses thousands of inmates, according to Kang Cheol-hwan, a former inmate there.
Kang, who recounted his experiences at the camp in the book "The Aquariums of Pyongyang," said his information came from contacts in the North. He currently heads a foreign-funded campaigning and advocacy group aimed at spreading democracy in North Korea.
Estimates of the current prison population range from 100,000 to 200,000, and activists say would-be defectors account for up to 5 percent of the total. Insung Kim of the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights cites a "five-fold rise" in the number of detained defectors over the last 10 years.
Figures provided by the South Korean government appear to support numerous accounts by smugglers, defectors and people living along the border that security has been tightened. In 2009, 2,929 defectors made it to South Korea. Last year, 1,509 did, the lowest number since 2005.
Despite ever more detailed and consistent testimony by defectors and sharper satellite images of the prison camps, there is still little the international community can do to press for change. The government refuses to allow outsiders access to detention facilities to check conditions, and denies the existence of political prison camps altogether.
The main source of information about the prison camps and the conditions inside is the nearly 25,000 defectors living in South Korea, the majority of whom arrived over the last five years. Researchers admit their picture is incomplete at best, and there is reason for some caution when assessing defector accounts.
Jung Gwang-il, who fled the North in 2004 after spending three years at Yodok for alleged espionage, said prisoners were forced to grow corn, peppers and barley, and those who didn't work hard enough had their rations cut. Hunger was so intense that prisoners ate undigested seeds from the feces of other inmates, he said.
In April, they would collect the corpses of those who died over the winter, because they were unable to bury them in the frozen earth.
"To this day I still remember the smell," he said. "Death was a fact of life there."
SEOUL, South Korea -- Planned high-level talks between South and North Korea after a nearly six-year hiatus were scrapped on Tuesday, a South Korean government official said, after North Korea objected to the diplomatic rank of the South's chief delegate.
North Korea's earlier offer for talks came as a surprise after weeks of bombastic threats to obliterate the South and launch a nuclear strike against the United States.
Kim Hyung-suk, a spokesman for the South's Unification Ministry, told reporters that North Korea had told South Korea that the South's choice for its chief delegate for the talks, the deputy unification minister, was not appropriate.
North Korea had said the South's choice of delegate was a "grave provocation," Kim said.
"Our government regrets North Korea's position," the South Korean spokesman said.
The talks scheduled for Wednesday would have been their first high-level talks in nearly six years. The North is seeking to reopen lucrative business deals and the South is trying to mend ties with its unpredictable and heavily armed neighbor.
A South Korean official shakes hands with Kim Song-hye, a senior official of North Korean Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea and head of a North Korean delegation for an inter-Korean working-level talks.
By Daniel Arkin, Staff Writer, NBC News
North and South Korea inched closer to resetting their strained relations Sunday as delegations met face-to-face to lay the foundation for the first cabinet-level talks in six years.
The meeting at the “Truce Village” of Panmunjom in the Korean Demilitarized Zone — so-called because the armistice that brought the 1950-53 Korean War to a close was signed there — signaled that the two countries may be prepared to move beyond months of mutual mistrust.
Officials reportedly reviewed logistics for two days of high-level talks between cabinet ministers scheduled to begin Wednesday in Seoul, according to The Associated Press. Senior government officials have not sat down for a meeting since 2007.
This week’s talks are expected to center on reopening a jointly run factory shut down this spring after the North closed the border and pulled out 53,000 of its workers during a particularly icy period in intergovernmental relations.
Any evidence of friendliness between the Koreas marks a significant counterpoint to recent tensions.
Over the last few months, the North has threatened preemptive nuclear strikes in the Asia-Pacific region and the U.S., raising the ire of officials in the West and alienating their neighbor to the south. Nuclear disarmament is not expected to appear on the agenda at Wednesday’s talks, according to the AP.
Prior to Sunday’s meeting, the South expressed enthusiasm about the potential for reconciliation.
“The development of South and North Korean relations starts form little things and gradual trust-building,” a South Korean delegate, Unification Policy Officer Chun Hae-sung, said before the meeting began, according to the AP.
The first round of dialogue between the Koreas comes on the heels of a closely-watchedsummit attended by President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping in which both leaders agreed that North Korea’s nuclear program poses a significant threat to the international community.
Security analysts have speculated that Pyongyang’s interest in closer ties with the South may stem from pressure from Beijing.
South Korean owners who run factories in the stalled South Korea and North Korea's joint Kaesong Industrial Complex, and workers stand just outside of military barricades set up on Unification Bridge near the border village of Panmunjom, which has separated the two Koreas since the Korean War on Thursday, May 30, 2013.
By Sam Kim, The Associated Press
North and South Korea have agreed to hold talks on reopening a jointly run factory complex and possibly other issues, a hopeful sign for ending deteriorating relations that comes just as China and the U.S. prepare for a summit where the North is expected to be a key topic.
North Korea said Thursday it is open to holding talks with South Korea on reopening the Kaesong complex just north of the Demilitarized Zone separating the countries. South Korea's Unification Ministry said in a text message that it "positively accepts" the North's announcement and will announce the date and agenda of talks later.
The decade-old complex, the product of an era of inter-Korean cooperation, shut down gradually this spring after Pyongyang cut border communications and access, then pulled the complex's 53,000 North Korean workers. The last of hundreds of South Korean managers at Kaesong left last month.
The Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea in Pyongyang announced the regime's willingness to hold talks in a statement carried by state media. The committee handles relations with Seoul. The statement was the North's first public response to Seoul's proposal in April to hold government-level talks to discuss the factory complex.
The authoritarian country's isolation has grown since a satellite launch in December, viewed as an effort to test its long-range missile technology, and since it conducted a nuclear test in February. Pyongyang was enraged by the United Nations Security Council sanctions those actions brought, and further angered by U.S.-South Korean military drills that the allies call routine but that the North claims are invasion rehearsals. Pyongyang earlier this year threatened nuclear attacks on Seoul and Washington.
After threatening nuclear war, the North Korean government has now shut down the Kaesong industrial park, where 110 South Korean businesses operated in North Korean territory, which provided thousands of jobs for North Koreans. NBC's Richard Engel reports.
The North Korean statement comes after Choe Ryong Hae, the North's top political officer, met with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Beijing in late May and said that Pyongyang was "willing to accept the suggestion of the Chinese side and launch dialogue with all relevant parties." China shares much of America's frustration over North Korea's nuclear ambitions but is concerned about keeping its neighbor and ally stable.
Xi is meeting President Barack Obama in California on Friday, and Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea expert at Seoul's Dongguk University, said Pyongyang's announcement is timed for those talks.
"North Korea is making it easier for China to persuade the U.S. to get softer on Pyongyang," Koh said.
The North's statement Thursday proposed talks not only about Kaesong, but about resuming cross-border tours suspended since 2008, and restarting the reunions of families divided since the Korean War. It added that the North could restore its Red Cross communication line with South Korea in their truce village if Seoul agrees to talks.
In a Memorial Day speech earlier Thursday, South Korean President Park Geun-hye reiterated her criticism of North Korea's national goals of pursuing nuclear and economic development, saying they can't be achieved simultaneously. Park, who is set to meet with Xi in late June, also called on North Korea to come to talks with Seoul to build trust.
Relations remain tense between the Koreas, which have technically been in a state of war for nearly 60 years because the Korean War ended in 1953 with a truce and not a peace treaty.
North Korea on Wednesday accused Seoul of kidnapping nine North Koreans that South Korean activists call defectors. The group was detained in Laos last month and repatriated via China last week.