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Head of the South Korean delegation Suh Ho at customs office before talks begin with North Korean delegates on Wednesday. Photo: Xinhua

Two Koreas start fresh talks on joint Kaesong industrial site


North and South Korea started talks on Wednesday on reopening a jointly run industrial zone, Seoul’s Unification Ministry said, with the complex seen as the last remaining symbol of cross-border reconciliation.

South Korean delegates met their Pyongyang counterparts in North Korea for the sensitive meeting aimed at restarting the site’s mothballed factories, but the two sides remain far apart over who was to blame for the closure.

The fresh talks follow a rare weekend meeting in which the two nations agreed in principle to reopen the Kaesong industrial complex, which shut down three months ago as relations between the frosty neighbours hit crisis point.

“We’ll do our best to ensure this meeting will lead to restoration of mutual trust and larger cooperation,” South Korea’s chief delegate Suh Ho told journalists before departure.

The South wants firm safeguards from the North against shutting Kaesong down unilaterally and to keep the estate insulated from Pyongyang’s whims.

This would be a bitter pill for the North to swallow as it means it would accept full responsibility for April’s closure of the zone.

“The weekend marked the first step, but the difficult part starts now,” a South Korean Unification Ministry official said.

Pyongyang, citing military tensions and the South’s hostility towards the North, in April withdrew its 53,000 workers from the 123 Seoul-owned factories at the complex, the last remaining symbol of cross-border reconciliation.

The South withdrew managers from most of the operations in early May.

The latest round of talks follow months of friction and threats of war by Pyongyang after its February nuclear test attracted tougher UN sanctions, further squeezing its struggling economy.

The South Korean-funded site was a key source of hard currency for the impoverished North.

The South also wants a pledge to safeguard uninterrupted movement in and out of the complex, as well as compensation for losses stemming from the suspension, a demand that the North is unlikely to accept.

“We will not accept circumstances reverting back to the way they were before the crisis,” Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Hyung-suk told reporters in Seoul on Tuesday.

At the end of gruelling 15-hour talks, the two sides said in a joint statement on Sunday that they had agreed to let South Korean firms restart their shuttered plants at the complex near the border when conditions are ripe.

The statement was viewed as a crucial step forward in winding down months of high tension.

It was unclear how long Wednesday’s talks would last.

On Tuesday, more than 20 visitors from the South, including government officials and workers, went to the complex to restart power supplies.

Dozens of South Korean businessmen left from Seoul to inspect their factories on the sidelines of the talks Wednesday.

However, some factory bosses have threatened to withdraw from the complex, complaining they have fallen victim to political bickering between the two rivals, which are still technically at war following their 1950-53 conflict which ended only in a ceasefire.

The Kaesong complex – built in 2004 about 10 kilometres north of the border – had previously remained largely resilient to turbulence in relations.