Making headway at the ongoing talks to normalize the inter-Korean industrial park in Kaesong can help resolve the long-drawn standoff surrounding suspended tours to Mount Kumgang, the South Korea unification minister said Thursday.
Speaking at a North Korean policy forum gathering in Seoul, Ryoo Kihl-jae said that Seoul wants to first concentrate on dealing with the impasse over the Kaesong Industrial Complex, but hinted a satisfactory conclusion can lead to the resumption of the tours to the east coast resort that have been halted for five years.
The Minister's comments come a day after talks held at the border town of Kaesong made no headway on the industrial complex issue and Seoul turned down an unexpected proposal by the North to start fresh negotiations in order to resume tours to Mount Kumgang.
Wednesday's talks were snagged as Seoul stressed the need for strong safeguards to prevent future unilateral disruptions to business operations at the park. It also insisted the North apologize for its action that halted operations and caused considerable damage to South Korean companies.
Pyongyang, on the other hand, wanted immediate resumption of operations and blamed the South for the current situation. However, the two sides did agree to hold more talks on Monday.
Operations at the industrial zone came to a halt in early April amid heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula following the North's detonation of its third nuclear device in February. Tours to the scenic resort were halted in July 2008 after the shooting death of a South Korean female tourist by a North Korean guard.
"We have sent a message saying that an understanding on Kaesong can naturally lead to the finding of a solution for the suspended tours," he said.
He added that focus on Kaesong makes sense because it represents the cornerstone of cross-border economic cooperation.
Ryoo then said the government is committed to building trust through talks, even if it is a long-drawn process.
"We are in the process of carrying out talks that can lead to desirable inter-Korean relations down the line, and are not focused on short-term gains," the policymaker said.
He stressed that unification is not something that can be avoided and said there is a need on the part of the South to create a unification-friendly society.
Related to the minister's comments, an official at the ministry, said that Seoul favors "constructive development" for the complex and its stance on the Mount Kumgang tours remains unchanged.
In the past Seoul demanded a formal apology for the shooting death of the tourist and pledged for safety measures to prevent a recurrence of such an incident.
Meanwhile, the official, who did not wished to be identified, said that in accordance with the agreements reached over the weekend, 125 businessmen and support personnel crossed over to Kaesong to check facilities and take inventory of products they can bring back out. Those that crossed over will return home during the day, with full-fledge retrieval of finished goods to take place from Friday onwards.
The trip follows the visit by 96 people to Kaesong complex the day before, which marked the first time since May 3 that South Korean businessmen stepped foot onto the premises of the joint venture. (Yonhap News)