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South Korea Opens Permanent Office in Communist North

For the first time, South Korea is opening a permanent government office in communist North Korea. South Korean officials view the opening as the latest success in Seoul's policy of engagement and cooperation with Pyongyang.

Beginning Friday, 14 South Korean officials will begin reporting to work in North Korea.

Rhee Bong-ju, South Korea's vice minister of unification, announced Thursday the officials will be stationed in a new South Korean liaison office in Kaesong, a North Korean border city about an hour's drive from Seoul.

Mr. Rhee points out it is the first permanent government office South Korea has established in North Korea since the peninsula was partitioned. About 10 North Korean officials are expected to work at the Kaesong office.

Communist North Korea and capitalist South Korea fought a war from 1950 to 1953, and spent the rest of the 20th century as bitter foes, at opposite ends of the Cold War. However, contacts between the two capitals have steadily increased since a historic summit in 2000 between then-South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Il.

A core policy goal of South Korea's current president, Roh Moo-hyun, has been to build on the momentum of the summit five years ago by engaging the North in peaceful economic cooperation. Along with the new liaison office, the city of Kaesong is home to a South Korean industrial park that is an island of capitalism in the communist North. Officials in Seoul say this will increase the two Koreas' economic interdependence.

Vice Unification Minister Rhee says the new office will help ensure the two countries keep talking to each other regularly. He says meetings between North and South Korean officials at the Kaesong office will take place about once a week.

Despite the increase in economic and interpersonal contacts between North and South, the Roh administration faces criticism from conservatives who say Seoul's friendship overtures are too one-sided. There also is concern about North Korea's nuclear-weapons capabilities, although diplomatic negotiations have won Pyongyang's agreement in principle to dismantle its nuclear programs.