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North-South Korea Contacts Wither as Border Closure Date Draws Near

North and South Korea are negotiating the details of reducing staff at a joint industrial park in North Korea. The talks are a possible prelude to closing the highly symbolic project altogether. As VOA's Kurt Achin reports from Seoul, North-South relations are experiencing their deepest chill in more than eight years.

South Korea says it is giving North Korea information it has requested in order to tighten its border with the South.

Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Ho-nyoun said Tuesday Seoul is talking to the North about the logistics of major staff reductions at a joint industrial project in the North Korean city of Kaesong.

He says North Korea has asked for a list of those South Koreans who will be staying, and those who will be leaving, as well as a a list of vehicles that will stay behind.

The Kaesong industrial park has been one of the symbolic centerpieces of South Korea's 10-year effort to engage the communist North through massive aid and investment. It employs more than 30,000 North Koreans as factory laborers producing basic goods like sneakers and cookware.

Now, North Korea is expelling what it calls "unnecessary" South Korean managers of the Kaesong project. Pyongyang is also ordering staff reductions at a joint tourism zone at North Korea's Mount Kumgang - where operations have been frozen since July's deadly shooting of a South Korean housewife by North Korean soldiers.

The moves are part of a phased plan leading to what North Korea says will be the complete sealing of the North-South border next week. On Monday, Pyongyang cancelled a South Korean tour program to Kaesong and prohibited border crossings by South Korean freight trains.

North Korea blames the chill in relations on South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak, who took office in January. Mr. Lee put an end to the no-strings-attached funneling of billions of dollars in South Korean wealth to the North. He has demanded progress on several issues, including the fate of South Koreans possibly abducted to the North, and diplomatic efforts to end North Korea's nuclear weapons programs.

North Korea has called President Lee a "traitor," and warns it will turn South Korea into "debris" if he does not fulfill North-South agreements which promise massive spending on the North.

Pyongyang has also lambasted South Korea for failing to stop balloon-borne launches of leaflets into North Korean territory by South Korean civic groups. The leaflets are severely critical of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, and contain sensitive information about his apparent recovery from a stroke.

Park Sung-hak, a North Korean defector and one of the main planners of the launches, said Tuesday in Seoul the launches will continue.

He says his group had actually decided to stop the launches in accordance with a request from the South Korean government. Now, however, in light of the the North's latest menacing actions, he says his group has no choice but to continue sending the leaflets.