SEOUL, South Korea (AP) - South Korean officials held rare talks
Thursday in North Korea on the fate of a joint industrial complex
amid rising tensions over Pyongyang's recent nuclear test and the
likelihood of new U.N. sanctions against the communist state.
South Korea also was expected to demand the release of one of
its citizens detained at the complex since late March for allegedly
denouncing the North's political system. Pyongyang has rejected
Seoul's repeated requests for his release, and details of his
status remained unclear.
The talks at the factory park in the North Korean border town of
Kaesong are only the second meeting between civilian officials from
the two sides in more than a year, a reflection of the deeply
frayed relations and mistrust between the nations struggling to
push ahead reconciliation efforts. The South Korean Unification
Ministry said the talks had begun, but did not immediately give any
Bilateral relations worsened after a pro-U.S., conservative
government took office in Seoul last year, advocating a tougher
policy on the North. In retaliation, the reclusive regime cut off
ties, halted all major joint projects except the Kaesong complex
and significantly restricted border traffic. The North's second
nuclear test blast on May 25 further damaged ties.
"One of our employees has been detained for over 70 days and as
you all know, the situation in Kaesong Industrial Complex is very
difficult," said Kim Young-tak, head of Seoul's 14-member
delegation, before leaving on a two-hour road trip to Kaesong. "We
are planning to meet with officials from the North and solve the
problems with an open heart."
The Kaesong complex, where 106 South Korean companies operate
with some 40,000 North Korean workers, is the Koreas' last
remaining reconciliation project. It makes everything from
electronics and watches to shoes and utensils, providing a major
source of revenue for the cash-strapped North.
But the park's fate was thrown into doubt after the North said
last month it was canceling what it calls "preferential"
contracts for its occupants and writing new rules for them. The
North said the South must accept them or pull out.
Despite the problems, "we hope the South-North relationship
will improve and develop in the future through this kind of meeting
and dialogue. We hope there will be a productive result today,"
Kim, the delegation head, said.
On Wednesday, Western powers reached agreement with North
Korea's allies on a proposal to punish Pyongyang for its latest
nuclear test - in defiance of a U.N. ban. The new sanctions would
put tough restrictions on Pyongyang's exports and financial
dealings, and allow inspections of suspect cargo in ports and on
the high seas.
The agreement awaits approval by the U.N. Security Council.
The South Korean government says it is committed to developing
the Kaesong industrial complex despite the problems between the two
But some companies appear to be losing patience. Earlier this
week, a South Korean fur-garment manufacturer announced that it was
pulling out of Kaesong citing security concern for its employees.
Since the inauguration of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak's
government in February 2008, the two Koreas have met at a
government level only once before, on April 21 at Kaesong. The
meeting, however, lasted only 22 minutes following hours of
wrangling over procedural issues, with the North refusing to
release the detained southern worker, Yu Song-jin.
Experts say Thursday's meeting would not progress much as the
North is expected to use the case to show how badly relations
between the two sides have frayed because of Seoul's hard-line
policy on Pyongyang.
"I think the North is trying to show that it cannot free Yu
unless the South drops its hostile policy and turns back toward a
reconciliation and cooperation policy," said Paik Hak-soon, a
senior analyst at the Sejong Institute, a South Korean think tank.
The North has also been preparing to test-fire an
intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the U.S.,
and appears to be readying for short- and medium-range missile
tests. This has prompted South Korea to step up its military
Intensifying tensions, North Korea handed down 12-year prison
terms to two detained American journalists on Monday. Analysts have
said Pyongyang is expected to use the reporters as bargaining chips
in nuclear and other negotiation with the U.S.
Some experts say the North's recent saber rattling is largely
aimed at mustering support for the country's absolute leader Kim
Jong Il as he reportedly prepares to announce his successor - his
third and youngest son Jong Un.
Kim, 67, is said to have suffered a stroke, and underwent brain
surgery last summer.
Little is known about the workings of the insular nation, and
most of the information comes out through occasional defectors,
South Korea's spy agency and South Korean media sources in the