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Koreas struggle on reopening joint industrial park

Suh Ho (right); Park Chol-su (left)
Suh Ho (right); Park Chol-su (left)

South Korea asked North Korea to provide a clear-cut guarantee that it will never again shut down a joint industrial complex in its territory as the two Koreas held rare talks, a senior Seoul official said Saturday.

The talks at the neutral border village of Panmunjom dragged on as North Korea insisted on a swift resumption of the Kaesong Industrial Zone in the North's border city of the same name the Unification Ministry official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

The talks followed months of high tensions jacked up by the North's third nuclear test in February. The industrial complex subsequently came to a halt, becoming a prominent casualty of the nuclear tension.

"Our side demanded the North's side provide an explicit guarantee on recurrence prevention and make a responsible statement on damages of our companies resulting from the North's unilateral measure," the official said.

However, Pyongyang avoided directly responding to the South Korean demand and insisted that the industrial park should be swiftly reopened, he said.

The two Koreas also blamed each other for the suspension of the industrial zone, according to the official.

As soon as the working-level meeting began at Tongilgak, a conference building in the North Korean side of the neutral border village of Panmunjom, early signs of differences emerged, with both sides differing over what should be done first to reopen the complex, according to South Korean pool reports.

The Kaesong industrial zone was effectively shut down in early April when Pyongyang pulled out its 53,000 workers from the 123 South Korean plants there. South Korea subsequently withdrew its manpower, mostly managers.

During Saturday's meeting, North Korea demanded that priority should be given to the issue of allowing South Korean engineers to visit the complex and check on manufacturing facilities that have been idle for months and take proper measures to prevent any damage from monsoon rains.

South Korea, on the other hand, asked North Korea to apologize for damages inflicted on the South Korean firms and guarantee that a similar problem would not recur, the pool reports said, quoting South Korean delegates.

Ahead of the meeting, South Korean officials said their focus will be on adopting "internationally acceptable safeguards" that would make it more difficult for North Korea to disrupt the operations of the industrial complex.

When it effectively shut down the industrial complex by pulling out its workers, North Korea cited the U.S.-involved military exercises in South Korea and Seoul's hostility toward it. South Korea denounced the North's move as political.

At Saturday's meeting which recessed frequently, South Korea also proposed that priority be given to the issue of South Korean companies retrieving finished products and raw production materials they left behind when they pulled out in a hurry, the reports said.

North Korea agreed to allow South Korean companies to retrieve finished products but opposed a proposal that raw production materials will also be allowed to be taken out as well, they said.

The North's delegation was led by Park Chol-su, vice director at the general bureau for the special zone that controls the Kaesong complex.

The start of the talks were delayed for nearly two hours as telephone lines to the South needed repairs, the reports said.

The meeting came after North Korea sent invitations to South Korean businessmen with factories in Kaesong, assuring them of safe passage to the border city.

The South countered this move by calling for government-to-government negotiations, while putting off allowing visits by businessmen until after officials hold talks. (Yonhap News)