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Ruling party chief visits N.K. amid lingering tensions

Visit raises anticipation for reactivation of economic cooperation





South Korea’s top right-wing politician visited a joint factory park in North Korea Friday, raising anticipations for the possibility of the two Koreas reactivating their economic cooperation.

Before crossing the heavily fortified land border to the Gaeseong Industrial Complex, Hong Joon-pyo, chief of Seoul’s ruling Grand National Party, called it “a politician’s duty” to thaw the icy inter-Korean relations.

“I’m the first chairman of the Grand National Party to visit the Gaeseong complex,” Hong told reporters. “It is a politician’s obligation to break the stalemate in inter-Korean relations.”

Hong’s schedule of the one-day visit will include a inspection tour of the factory park and meeting with officials of South Korean firms there, but party insiders did not exclude the possibility of the chairman meeting with North Korean officials. Hong was accompanied by three other party members.

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 after the first inter-Korean summit in 2000. Currently, more than 46,000 North Koreans work as employees at about 120 South Korean-run factories there.

The two Koreas, technically still at war, saw their relations plunge into the worst state in decades following Pyongyang’s attacks against Seoul last year that killed a combined 50 South Koreans.

Apparently in response to 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 eight months later, killing soldiers as well as civilians.

The incidents left the two 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’ aids to North Korea.

In an earlier news briefing in Seoul, Hong had said his party and the president agree on the need to thaw the icy relations through economic cooperation and humanitarian aid.

Ahead of parliamentary and presidential elections next year, the conservative ruling party has increased calls on the government to ease its tough stance on North Korea, though hard-line right-wing critics denounce them as a gesture aimed at appeasing left-wing voters.

Kim Gi-hyeon, spokesman of the ruling party, had hinted that “some sensitive issues” may be addressed during Hong’s visit to Gaeseong.

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