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North, South Korea to Return to Kaesong Talks

  • Daniel Schearf

South Korean workers and owners who run factories in the stalled Kaesong industrial complex stage a rally insisting the normalize the operation of the industrial complex at the Imjingak Pavilion near the border village of Panmunjom in Paju, north of Seoul

South Korean workers and owners who run factories in the stalled Kaesong industrial complex stage a rally insisting the normalize the operation of the industrial complex at the Imjingak Pavilion near the border village of Panmunjom in Paju, north of Seoul

North and South Korea are meeting for a seventh round of renewed negotiations to try to reopen their joint industrial park at Kaesong, the last trace of inter-Korean cooperation. Pyongyang pulled its workers from the factory complex in April over military tensions but South Korean officials are dismissing concerns that this month's training exercises with the United States could affect the talks.

The two Koreas are heading into negotiations on the Kaesong industrial park on a positive note but with the specter of renewed military tensions still looming.

The talks come a week after North Korea suddenly agreed to a new round of negotiations after ten days of silence.

The official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) published a statement proposing the August 14 talks that it described as "bold and magnanimous."

Pyongyang said it would guarantee the safety of South Korean managers and that the 53,000 North Korean laborers would return to “normal work”.

Seoul described Pyongyang's decision as forward-looking. But, the renewed negotiations come as Washington and Seoul this month prepare for annual military exercises, which could upset North Korea.

Kaesong Joint Industrial Complex

-Started producing goods in 2004
-Employs about 53,000 North Koreans
-120 South Korean businesses operate there
-Hailed as rare example of North/South cooperation
-Generates $2 billion in trade annually for North
-Located 10 kilometers north of border
Pyongyang abruptly pulled its workers from the decade-long project in April citing insults to its dignity and joint U.S.-South Korea military drills.

When asked whether the joint military exercises could be detrimental to the talks, Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Hyung-suk was dismissive.

He said the operation of the Kaesong Industrial Complex was not related to the military situation. He said they should focus on the operation of Kaesong Industrial Complex.

Known as “Ulchi Freedom Guardian”, the annual maneuvers are defensive preparations in the event of a North Korean attack.

But, Pyongyang calls such joint exercises preparations for an invasion and routinely blasts them with combative threats.

South Korea's Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok said the exercises would go ahead regardless.

He said as someone being tested should continuously study, and take mock exams in order to get good result, a military which did not conduct training is meaningless. Since the exercises were defensive training for South Korea and the United States, to prepare for provocation from North Korea, he said the schedule would proceed without any change.

North Korea has been seeking the immediate restart of the light manufacturing at Kaesong but Seoul wants guarantees Pyongyang will never again unilaterally shut it down.

A series of deadlocked talks in July broke down bitterly with both sides blaming the other. South Korea gave an offer of “one final round” but, with no response from Pyongyang, began taking steps to pull out of the joint project.

North Korea's change of heart came just hours after Seoul approved compensation for South Korean companies invested in Kaesong.

The insurance payments were seen as the first step to permanently shutting down the complex, an important source of hard currency for the impoverished North.

But not all analysts agree that Pyongyang is worried.

Kim Jin-hyang is head of the Research Center of Peace and Unification on the Korean Peninsula. He argued that North Korea was showing deep consideration and that Seoul would need to be more flexible for Kaesong to continue.

He said there was a butting of heads as North Korea said both South Korea and North Korea were responsible for the closure of Kaesong while Seoul argued that North Korea alone boreresponsibility. He said if South Korea continuously argued that North Korea was 100 percent responsible, then he did not think the negotiation would be successful.

The 123 South Korean companies invested in Kaesong say they have lost about $1 billion since it was suspended.

The industrial complex is the last trace of ongoing inter-Korean cooperation and, until April, operated through years of up-and-down relations, including exchanges of fire and threats of nuclear war.

VOA Seoul Bureau producer Youmi Kim contributed to this report.
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