North Korea announced today that it would resume reunions of families separated by the border with South Korea and restart stalled tourism ventures in its latest gesture of conciliation after nearly 18 months of rising tensions.
However, the North said separately that it was putting its army on "special alert" because of South Korea's military drills with the United States this week, a sign that hostility and distrust between the countries remain high.
The official Korean Central News Agency reported early today that the communist nation had agreed to restart tours to the scenic Mt. Kumgang resort and ancient sights in Kaesong. The tours had been suspended amid tensions after the inauguration of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak early last year.
The conservative Lee angered the government in Pyongyang by taking a tougher line than his predecessors on keeping North Korea accountable on its nuclear disarmament commitments.
The report did not give exact dates for when the tours would resume.
The news agency said the North also agreed to resume reunions at Mt. Kumgang of families separated by one of the world's most heavily fortified borders on this year's Chuseok, the annual autumn harvest holiday in early October.
The North also said it agreed to ease restrictions on border traffic and "energize" the operation of a joint factory park in Kaesong.
The North said the agreement was reached with Seoul's Hyundai Group, the main South Korean investor in North Korea, and followed a meeting between conglomerate Chairwoman Hyun Jung-eun and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang on Sunday.
Both tours to Mt. Kumgang and Kaesong had been run by Hyundai's North Korea business arm, Hyundai Asan.
Hyundai Asan in Seoul said it was aware of the North's announcement but couldn't immediately confirm it.
South Korea's Unification Ministry said it would disclose its position on whether to accept the North's announcements after Hyun returned home later today.
The agreement was seen as a conciliatory gesture toward Seoul and Washington amid the standoff over Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program.
On Thursday, the North freed a Hyundai worker whom it had detained for months for allegedly denouncing the country's political system.
It also followed the North's release of two jailed U.S. journalists. Meanwhile, the North said today that its military would be on special alert because of South Korea's annual computer-simulated war games with the U.S., which started today.