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Head of the South Korean delegation Suh Ho (left) shakes hands with his North Korean counterpart Park Chol-su. Photo: Reuters

North and South Korea open rare talks on Kaesong joint industrial zone

Delegations meet for tense discussions over closed joint industrial zone in Kaesong


North and South Korea held rare talks yesterday on reopening a joint industrial zone seen as the last remaining symbol of cross-border reconciliation.

But the meeting showed early signs of faltering, with two sides talking across each other over what to discuss first.

The talks - delayed by nearly two hours - follow months of friction and threats of war from Pyongyang after its February nuclear test led to tougher UN sanctions, further squeezing its struggling economy.

The Kaesong industrial zone was the most high-profile casualty of the elevated tensions on the Korean peninsula but neither side has declared the complex officially closed, instead referring to a temporary shutdown.

Both nations say they want to reopen the Seoul-funded industrial zone on the North Korean side of the border but blame each other for its suspension.

"There are a multitude of issues to discuss but the issue of preventing damage to facilities from monsoon rains should take precedence," the North's chief delegate Park Chol-Su was quoted as saying at the start of the meeting by a press pool report.

His South Korean counterpart Suh Ho said: "We've come here with a heavy heart as the Kaesong industrial zone has been shuttered. I hope we settle the issue through mutual trust and co-operation."

Pyongyang, citing military tensions and the South's hostility toward the North, in April withdrew its 53,000 workers from the 123 Seoul-owned factories at the Kaesong park.

Until then the industrial park - a valuable source of hard currency for the impoverished North - had proved remarkably resilient to the regular upheavals in inter-Korean relations.

At yesterday's talks, the South reproached the North for suspending the operation of Kaesong unilaterally, calling for a guarantee aimed at preventing a recurrence, a Unification Ministry official told journalists.

The official added that the Seoul had urged the North to take responsibility for losses suffered by South Korean firms there.

The North, however, will likely find it hard to accept such a demand as it would amount to Pyongyang accepting full responsibility for the suspension.

The South suggested the meeting should first deal with the issue of moving finished products and raw materials held up at Kaesong to the South.

But the North called for the reopening of the zone at the earliest possible date without preconditions. It suggested that the talks should urgently address the issue of further damage from monsoon rains at the facilities.

South Korean officials earlier said the South would not agree to restarting Kaesong "as if nothing had happened" and thus let the North get away with taking unilateral action.

On his way to the meeting, Suh encountered a group of businessmen with plants in Kaesong. They carried banners expressing hope that the talks would be successful. One read: "We want to work again. Restart Kaesong."

The meeting comes after a surprise move on Wednesday from North Korea, which restored a cross-border hotline and promised to let South Korean businessmen visit the estate and check on their closed factories.

Representatives of the South Korean companies in the zone have repeatedly urged the two sides to open talks to revive the industrial park. The South wants its businessmen to be able to bring back finished goods and raw materials. But some firms have threatened to withdraw from Kaesong, complaining they have fallen victim to political bickering between the two rivals.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: North and South open rare talks