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Korean Groups Meet Over Wage Dispute

FILE - North Korean employees, shown in December 2013, sew in a South Korean-owned company at the Kaesong industrial park just north of the Demilitarized Zone.

South Korean businessmen say North Korea is willing to settle a dispute over wage increases for North Korean workers at the jointly run Kaesong Industrial Complex just north of the Demilitarized Zone.

In a fresh attempt to bridge wage divisions, a group of 17 South Korean businessmen on Tuesday visited the complex and met with North Korean officials for about an hour.

The industrial park, located about 64 kilometers or 40 miles north of Seoul, is one of the few areas of north-south economic cooperation in the divided Korean peninsula. Its roughly 120 South Korean factories employ more than 53,000 North Korean workers.

Chung Ki-sup, who led the delegation, said North Korea showed willingness to settle the dispute.

"The North Korean officials told us that they will not make it difficult for the businesses and that they are determined to sustain and develop the complex because it is the legacy" of the late leader Kim Jong Il, said Chung in a phone interview with VOA.

North and South Korea have been at odds over wages since November, when Pyongyang unilaterally decided to raise the monthly minimum. In February, Pyongyang notified Seoul it had decided to boost the minimum from $70.35 to $74 a month starting in March.

Pyongyang had said the workers’ minimum wage should reflect rising consumer prices. But Seoul opposed the increase, saying it needed a voice in the decision.

South Korean companies depend on the national government to represent their interests in negotiations.

Chung said the North Korean officials indicated their intention to hold talks with a South Korean body that manages the complex. According to South Korean government officials, Seoul plans to offer Pyongyang talks through its management body. Earlier, Pyongyang rejected Seoul’s proposal for similar talks.

He said there still was time for both sides to narrow differences and reach an agreement, calling for the early settlement of the dispute.

According to Chung, the South Korean delegation has also raised North Korean workers’ low productivity.

There are concerns the Kaesong factories could be shuttered temporarily if the dispute worsens. Pyongyang closed the complex for five months in 2013 amid heightened diplomatic tensions. The industrial park opened in 2004.

Jee Abbey Lee contributed to this report, which was produced in collaboration with the VOA Korean service.

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