South Korea yesterday proposed high-level talks with Pyongyang on January 9, after the North's leader Kim Jong-Un called for better relations and said his country might attend the Winter Olympics in the South.
Kim used his annual New Year address to warn he has a "nuclear button" on his table, but sweetened his remarks by expressing an interest in dialogue and taking part in the Pyeongchang Games next month.
South Korea's unification minister Cho Myoung-Gyon told a press conference that Seoul was "reiterating our willingness to hold talks with the North at any time and place in any form".
"The government proposes to hold high-level government talks with North Korea on January 9 at the Peace House in Panmunjom," Cho said, referring to a truce village on the border between the two Koreas.
"We hope that the South and North can sit face to face and discuss the participation of the North Korean delegation at the Pyeongchang Games as well as other issues of mutual interest for the improvement of inter-Korean ties."
The Koreas, divided by a Demilitarised Zone since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War, last held high-level talks in 2015 to try to ease tensions.
Those talks failed to reach an agreement.
"Just the fact that they are meeting will be meaningful because it signals an attempt on both sides to improve relations," said Koh Yu-Hwan, a political science professor at Dongguk University.
But once they sit down, the North could put Seoul in a difficult position by making unacceptable demands such as an end to its annual joint military drills with the United States, Koh added.
"What North Korea is trying to do is re-establish its relations as a nuclear state (with Seoul). The South's dilemma is whether we can accept that."
South Korean President Moon Jae-In, who has long favoured engagement to ease tensions with the North, earlier yesterday welcomed Kim's suggestion of an opportunity for dialogue.
However, he indicated that improvements in ties must go hand in hand with steps towards denuclearisation of the North.
North Korea has rattled the international community in recent months with multiple missile launches and its sixth and most powerful nuclear test -- purportedly of a hydrogen bomb.
It has shrugged off a raft of new sanctions and heightened rhetoric from Washington as it drives forward with its weapons programme, which it says is for defence against US aggression.
Kim's comments on Monday were the first indication of North Korea's willingness to take part in the Winter Games from February 9-25.
Moon called them a "positive response" to Seoul's hopes that the Pyeongchang Olympics would be a "groundbreaking opportunity for peace" and urged officials to come up with measures to realise the North's participation.
Beijing, Pyongyang's main ally, welcomed the developments.