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Seoul to lift Gaeseong construction ban

Unification Ministry says will allow South Korean firms to build facilities in joint park


South Korea said Tuesday it will allow its firms to resume building facilities within the joint factory park in North Korea in the latest sign of easing ties between the two divided countries.

Seoul also plans to build a fire station and a new medical facility, and add commuter buses for the tens of thousands of North Koreans working at the inter-Korean industrial complex located in the southwestern North Korean border city of Gaeseong, the Unification Ministry, which oversees affairs with Pyongyang, said in a statement.

The Gaeseong Industrial Complex, which combines South Korean capital and know-how with cheap North Korean labor, has been a symbol of inter-Korean cooperation. Currently, more than 46,000 North Koreans work as employees at about 120 South Korean-run factories there.

The announcement comes after the chief of South Korea’s conservative ruling party visited Gaeseong late last month, calling on the government to ease its stern policy on North Korea.

“The decision was made upon Grand National Party Chairman Hong Joon-pyo’s request to the government over the difficulties faced by local firms in Gaeseong,” a Unification Ministry official said, adding “no changes have been made” to the government’s overall stance on Pyongyang.

The two Koreas, technically still at war, saw their relations deteriorate to their worst in years following Pyongyang’s attacks last year that killed 50 South Koreans.

In an apparent response to President Lee Myung-bak administration’s hard-line policies, North Korea torpedoed a Seoul warship last March and bombarded a border island eight months later, killing soldiers as well as civilians.

The incidents left the two not talking for several months, pushing South Korea to issue tough sanctions in May last year that included restrictions on new investment and construction regarding the joint factory park.

In a sign of softening stance toward its northern rival, Seoul has been approving nongovernmental groups’ humanitarian aid to North Korea and has resumed inter-Korean dialogue over how to restart the stalled six-nation denuclearization talks.

Upon the new decision, seven South Korean firms will be allowed to restart building facilities in the complex and the ministry may also let five firms expand their company offices there, officials said.

The Seoul government also plans to begin repairing a 4.5 kilometer-long road between the Gaeseong City and the joint factory park and operate 45 more commute buses for the convenience of North Korean workers by some time next year. Currently, 250 buses are being operated for workers.

By Shin Hae-in (hayney@heraldcorp.com)
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