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Inter-Korean Contacts Expand as Talks Approach

  • Kurt Achin

Two South Korean workers of Korea Telecom work as two Koreas officers watch them at the southern side of the demilitarized zone, near Paju, north of Seoul
With talks on North Korea's nuclear weapons programs set to resume next week, the two Koreas are expanding contacts with each other. North and South Korean officials celebrated a high-tech connection between separated families, while one of South Korea's biggest corporations made plans for increased tourism to the North.

North and South Korea held a ceremony Monday to mark the laying of a fiber-optic cable across their border. The cable is part of a plan to set up video conferences for families separated by the North-South divide.

Park Seung-lim, with the Department of Separated Families at South Korea's Unification Ministry, says the cable is a first step in a growing initiative.

Ms. Park said there are no apparent technical problems with the system, and the video reunions will start as a pilot program next month. Korean Red Cross officials estimate the first online reunions will involve about 20 families, then expand over time.

North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950. Thousands of families remain separated by the heavily armed border, which bisected the peninsula after the signing of a 1953 armistice. Pressure is increasing on South Korea to increase the number of reunions, as many separated family members are in their final years of life.

North and South Korea plan to break ground on a permanent reunion center in North Korea's Mount Kumgang resort next month. Face-to-face reunions are scheduled for about 200 separated family members on August 26.

South Korean tourism to Mount Kumgang is sponsored by the South's Hyundai Corporation, which announced two new tourism ventures with the North this week.

Starting next month, Hyundai Chairwoman Hyun Chong-eun says South Koreans will be able to visit North Korea's Mount Baekdu as well as a waterfall area near Kaesong, where South Korea maintains an industrial park.

Ms. Hyun said the permission to run the new tours came directly from North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, with whom she met in Pyongyang this weekend. There has been no word so far about how much Hyundai will pay North Korea for the access. It has a 30-year deal worth nearly a billion dollars for access to the Mount Kumgang site.

North-South initiatives have flourished following Pyongyang's decision to resume talks aimed at ending its nuclear weapons programs. Pyongyang decided to end its 13-month boycott of the talks earlier this month, shortly after South Korea offered to ease the North's energy shortage by supplying electricity.

On Monday, North Korea's Central News Agency said in order to make progress in the talks, North Korea and the U.S. must build a "relationship of trust and will for mutual respect and coexistence." The discussions are set to resume in Beijing next week.

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