North Korea said Tuesday it would allow South Korean businessmen to visit their plants in a shuttered joint economic zone, but declined Seoul's offer of official working-level talks on the complex.
The Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea (CPRK), which handles ties with the South, said it had approved a trip by Seoul businessmen to the Kaesong complex and would guarantee their safety.
Operations at Kaesong ground to a halt after the North pulled all its workers out in early April amid soaring military tensions with Seoul.
The South withdrew its managers and officials soon afterwards, but many asked to return to check up on their machinery, as well as stocks of raw materials and finished goods they were forced to leave behind.
Seoul insists Pyongyang must first agree to working-level talks on the assets of the South Korean firms and other issues.
The CPRK statement argued that such discussions could be held with the businessmen when they arrive.
"The South (does) not need to worry about their safety," the statement said.
"If they still do not feel reassured, they may send with them members of the Committee for Operating the Kaesong Industrial Zone," it said, referring to Seoul's state body that oversees the complex.
A spokeswoman for Seoul's Unification Ministry which handles North Korea affairs repeated the condition of holding working-level talks first.
Established in 2004 as a rare symbol of inter-Korean cooperation, the Kaesong joint industrial zone was the most high-profile casualty of two months of elevated tensions that followed the North's nuclear test in February.
Born out of the "Sunshine Policy" of inter-Korean conciliation initiated in the late 1990s by South Korean president Kim Dae-Jung, Kaesong has been a crucial hard currency source for the impoverished North, through taxes and revenues, and its cut of worker wages.