The two Koreas agreed on Thursday evening to hold talks Saturday on normalizing the suspended Gaeseong industrial park, raising a glimmer of hope to ease the prolonged tension on the Korean Peninsula.
In a flurry of exchanges, the two sides concurred that working-level officials meet at the truce village of Panmunjeom to discuss ways to maintain and handle products and facilities and how to normalize the park which has been shut down since April.
The planned talks are hoped to breathe life into the frozen ties, but some observers cautioned against pinning excessive expectations on what is only an elementary level of communication.
Early in the day, Seoul proposed holding governmental talks in response to the North’s Wednesday announcement that it would allow South Koreans to come and check their production facilities.
Seoul’s move was considered to be an attempt to gauge the sincerity of Pyongyang’s intention to solve Gaeseong issue, and as part of the Park Geun-hye administration’s principle that the industrial complex suspension can be resolved only through government-level discussion.
An official stands at the office of the association of South Korean companies operating in Gaeseong, in Seoul on Thursday. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)
The two sides engaged in a tug-of-war over the venue until later in the evening with Seoul suggesting Panmunjeom and Pyongyang proposing the industrial park, but eventually agreed to meet at Tongilgak, a building on the North Korean side of the truce village, at 10 a.m.
The Gaeseong complex was shut down in April after North Korea pulled out all of its workers in response to U.N. sanctions on its nuclear test and a joint military drills between Seoul and Washington.
For the past several months, relations between the two Koreas have been at one of its lowest ebbs, with a previous attempt to hold high-level government talks falling apart last month upon disagreements over which delegates would participate.
North Korea has since been focusing on sending diplomatic offensives to the U.S. and other members of the six-party talks on its nuclear programs to restart dialogue while continuing to fend off calls to commit to denuclearization.
Both Koreas have nonetheless remained wistful of the Gaeseong project, which was the last remaining symbol of the Koreas’ cooperation with wide investments made by the South Korean government and companies, and a cash cow for the destitute North.
The Unification Ministry sent the proposal via the communication channel at the truce village of Panmunjeom.
“The proposal is in consideration of the substantial difficulties suffered by the companies as the operation has remained shut down for over three months, and as more damage is anticipated in the rainy season,” Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Hyung-suk said.
He said the talks will be able to delve into issues of checking the facilities and equipment at the complex, as well as the handling of finished goods and raw and subsidiary materials, and ways to normalize the park.
From the South, three representatives would attend the talks headed by a bureau chief-level official.
The North had sent their invitation soon after members of the companies’ association said they will consider relocating machinery equipments from Gaeseong to the South or a third country unless measures are taken to reopen the complex.
Following North Korea’s latest overture, the inter-Korean communication line at the truce village resumed normal operation. The contact had been cut off June 11 following the cancellation of the senior-level talks.
The Unification Ministry said the North responded to the call made on the Red Cross phone line at 9 a.m.
Earlier in the day, a Cheong Wa Dae official reiterated Seoul’s principle-based approach.
“While the door to dialogue between the two Koreas remains open, one thing is clear in that there will be no North Korea policy that is imprudent or unprincipled,” the official told reporters, wishing not to be named.
It is the government’s stance that they cannot allow civilians to cross the border without Pyongyang’s assurance that it will not unilaterally shut down the complex again.
So far, the damage suffered by the South Korean companies as of the end of June is said to reach around 706.7 billion won ($620 million), according to the Democratic Party.
By Lee Joo-hee (firstname.lastname@example.org