By Christine Kim
SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea on Monday proposed military talks with North Korea, the first formal overture to Pyongyang by the government of President Moon Jae-in, to discuss ways to avoid hostile acts near the heavily militarized border.
There was no immediate response by the North to the proposal for talks later this week. The two sides technically remain at war but Moon, who came to power in May, has pledged to engage the North in dialogue as well as bring pressure to impede its nuclear and missile programs.
The offer comes after the North claimed to have conducted the first test of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) earlier this month, and said it had mastered the technology to mount a nuclear warhead on the missile. South Korea and the United States, its main ally, dispute the claim.
"Talks and cooperation between the two Koreas to ease tension and bring about peace on the Korean peninsula will be instrumental for pushing forth a mutual, virtuous cycle for inter-Korea relations and North Korea's nuclear problem," the South's Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon told a news briefing.
The South Korean defense ministry proposed talks with the North on July 21 at Tongilgak to stop all activities that fuel tension at the military demarcation line.
Tongilgak is a North Korean building at the Panmunjom truce village on the border used for previous inter-Korea talks. The last such talks were held in December 2015.
Cho also urged the restoration of military and government hotlines across the border, which had been cut by the North last year in response to the South imposing economic sanctions after a nuclear test by Pyongyang. In all, the North has conducted five nuclear tests and numerous missile tests.
The South also proposed separate talks by the rival states' Red Cross organizations to resume a humanitarian project to reunite families separated during the 1950-53 Korean War in closely supervised events held over a few days.
The South Korean Red Cross suggested talks be held on Aug. 1, with possible reunions over the Korean thanksgiving Chuseok holiday, which falls in October this year.
The last such reunions were held in October 2015 during the government of Moon's predecessor under a futile push for reconciliation following a sharp increase in tension over border incidents involving a landmine blast and artillery fire.
BEIJING IN FAVOR
China, which has close ties to Pyongyang despite Beijing's anger over North Korea's missile and nuclear tests, welcomed the proposal, saying cooperation and reconciliation between the two Koreas was good for everyone and could help ease tensions.
"We hope that North and South Korea can work hard to go in a positive direction and create conditions to break the deadlock and resume dialogue and consultation," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang told a daily news briefing.
The proposals come after Moon said at the G20 summit in Hamburg earlier this month that he was in favor of dialogue with the North despite the "nuclear provocation" of its latest missile test.
When Moon visited Washington after being elected president, he and U.S. President Donald Trump said they were open to renewed dialogue with North Korea but only under circumstances that would lead to Pyongyang giving up its weapons programs.
"The fact that we wish to take on a leading role in resolving this (North Korean) issue has already been understood at the summit with the United States and the Group of 20 summit meetings," Cho said on Monday.
In the proposal for talks, South Korea did not elaborate on the meaning of hostile military activities, which varies between the two Koreas. South Korea usually refers to loudspeaker propaganda broadcasts by both sides, while the North wants a halt to routine joint U.S.-South Korea military drills.
Moon suggested earlier this month hostile military activities at the border be ended on July 27, the anniversary of the 1953 armistice agreement that ended the Korean War. Since no truce was agreed, the two sides remain technically at war.
When asked if South Korea was willing to "be flexible" on military drills with the United States should North Korea be open to talks, Cho said the government had not discussed the matter specifically.
Pyongyang has repeatedly said it refuses to engage in all talks with the South unless Seoul turns over 12 waitresses who defected to the South last year after leaving a restaurant run by the North in China.
North Korea says the South abducted the 12 waitresses and the restaurant manager and has demanded their return, but the South has said the group decided to defect of its own free will. Cho said this matter is not included on the talks agenda.
In an act to rein in the North, the United States is preparing new sanctions on Chinese banks and firms doing business with Pyongyang possibly within weeks, two senior U.S. officials said last week.
(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)