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GNP leader’s Gaeseong visit may reduce tension

A planned visit to North Korea by a top right-wing South Korean politician is drawing attention as the two Koreas have been trying for months to thaw their icy ties.

Hong Joon-pyo, chief of Seoul’s ruling Grand National Party, will travel to a joint factory park in North Korea’s Gaeseong on Friday to seek ways of promoting the industrial complex, the party and the Unification Ministry said. It will be the first official visit to North Korea by a ruling party leader.

Announcing his visit, accompanied by four other party members, Hong said his trip was based on “the belief that the two Koreas must ease tensions.”

The politician also said he has “no plans at the moment” to meet North Korean officials during the visit, but added he would “make further reports” after he returns home.

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 that boomed following the first summit of leaders in 2000. Currently, more than 46,000 North Koreans work at about 120 South Korean-run factories there.

The two Koreas, who are technically still at war, saw their relations plunge into the worst state in decades following Pyongyang’s two deadly attacks against Seoul last year.

Apparently discomforted by South Korea’s incumbent Lee Myung-bak administration’s hard-line policies, North Korea torpedoed a Seoul warship last March and bombarded a border island just eight months later, killing up to 50 South Koreans.

The incidents left the two rivals not talking for several months, but they have been slowly resuming dialogue over how to restart the stalled six-nation denuclearization talks. Seoul has also been approving of nongovernmental groups’ aid to North Korea.

Hong said he received Pyongyang’s go-ahead for his visit just five days after his request, which he called “surprisingly prompt.”

“It usually takes the country from 15 days to a month to permit a visit. I am guessing North Korea views this visit as meaningful,” he said. “I think the majority of the people now want the two Koreas to ease tensions.”

The ruling party and the president share their views on the need to thaw the ice via economic cooperation and humanitarian aid, Hong said, noting Seoul’s recent replacement of its point man on North Korea.

President Lee replaced a hard liner with moderate diplomat Yoo Woo-ik as his chief of the Unification Ministry earlier this month, an indication of Seoul’s willingness to soften its stance toward North Korea. Upon his inauguration, Yoo had emphasized flexibility in inter-Korean ties.

Ahead of the parliamentary and presidential elections next year, the conservative ruling party has been increasing calls on the government to take softer North Korea policy, though critics denounce them as a gesture aimed at appeasing left wing voters.

Kim Gi-hyeon, spokesman of the ruling party, said “some sensitive issues” may be addressed during the visit to Gaeseong.

Ruling party members are expected to hold a press conference immediately after returning to the South Korean side of the border Friday afternoon.

The Unification Ministry, meanwhile, was cautious not to exaggerate the meaning of Hong’s planned trip, calling it “a practical visit to examine the situation in the Gaeseong complex.”

During a regular press briefing Wednesday, ministry spokesman Chun Hae-sung said the GNP delegation will visit factory facilities and have lunch with the South Korean firm representatives.

Political parties here have shown a divided reaction to Hong’s visit.

While the main opposition Democratic Party welcomed the visit, the right-wing Liberty Forward Party criticized the ruling party for undermining the government’s hard-line principle against Pyongyang.

“We hope Chairman Hong’s visit will play a role in thawing the icy inter-Korean relations and give answers to the stalled cross-border tours and reunions of separated families,” said Lee Yong-sub, spokesman of the DP.

The minority LFP, meanwhile, criticized Hong for rushing into the visit without a “clear idea” on the issues he plans to address in Gaeseong.

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