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Seoul Urges North Korea to Hold Talks - 2001-10-22

South Korea is urging North Korea to stick with the original site for reconciliation talks between the two governments. Cabinet-level talks are scheduled to begin in Pyongyang Sunday but North Korea wants to change the venue.

In a telephone call Monday, South Korea's Unification Minister Hong Soon-young urged his North Korean counterpart to go ahead as planned with ministerial talks in Pyongyang. Mr. Hong expressed regret that inter-Korean agreements "cannot be implemented smoothly." The meeting is to begin Sunday.

North Korea wants the venue to be changed to Mount Kumgang, the site of a troubled joint tourism project between the two Koreas. The proposal departs from the practice of alternating ministerial talks between Seoul and Pyongyang.

The North proposed the new location nearly two weeks ago when it postponed a fourth round of reunions between family members separated for 50 years. Pyongyang said South Korea's current heightened security following the attacks on the United States last month made it unsafe to hold the reunions.

Analysts say North Korea's choice of Mount Kumgang for the meeting appears to be tied to negotiations on the future of a money-losing tourism venture there.

South Korean conglomerate Hyundai, which runs trips to Mount Kumgang, has stopped operations because of rising costs and a declining number of tourists. The suspension deprives Pyongyang of millions of dollars in monthly fees that Hyundai pays to get access to the area. The two sides failed to reach an agreement on reviving the project in talks earlier this month.

Choi Jin-wook, a research analyst at the Korea Institute of National Unification, says North Korea is using Sunday's meeting to pursue the tourism project. "They didn't exactly get what they wanted in the fifth round of talks. So I think it is very possible that in North Korea, hard-liners were strongly against the meeting of the separated families because they didn't get the cash," said the analyst.

"So they postponed the meeting of the separated family but they still want the sixth round of ministerial level talks because they want to keep the door open for negotiations in order to get Kumgang mountain project money."

North and South Korea are still technically at war, but relations between the two have warmed since an unprecedented summit between their two leaders last year.