SEOUL – North and South Korea held rare talks Saturday on re-opening a joint industrial zone seen as the last remaining symbol of cross-border reconciliation.The talks — delayed by nearly two hours — follow months of friction and threats of war by Pyongyang after its February nuclear test attracted tougher UN sanctions, further squeezing its struggling economy.
Kaesong 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 Pak Chol-Su was quoted as saying at the start of the meeting by a press pool report.
His South Korean counterpart and senior Unification Ministry official, Suh Ho, said: “We’ve come here with a heavy heart as the Kaesong industrial zone has been shuttered down. I hope we settle the issue through mutual trust and cooperation.”
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.
Technical problems delayed the start of the talks at the border truce village of Panmunjom on Saturday as telephone lines to the South needed repairs, the Unification Ministry in Seoul said.
Seoul is expected to call for a written guarantee aimed at preventing a recurrence of the unilateral shutdown, a demand which the North would find it hard to accept as it would amount to Pyongyang swallowing its pride and accepting full responsibility for the suspension.
On the agenda are issues of checking on mothballed factory facilities and equipment, moving finished products and raw materials held up at Kaesong to the South and the reopening of the zone.
At an access road to Panmunjom, 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 moribund 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.
The South responded cautiously by saying it would try to seek internationally accepted safeguards to develop Kaesong as a politically neutral zone.
“We have clarified our position many times that Kaesong must be developed as an area that follows international standards and where common sense prevails,” Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Hyung-Suk said.
Opposition parties in Seoul urged South Korean negotiators to exercise flexibility in Saturday’s talks.
After repeatedly threatening Seoul and Washington with conventional and nuclear attack, Pyongyang has appeared in recent weeks to want to move towards dialogue.
Analysts say North Korea is mindful of a US demand that it improve ties with Seoul before there can be any talks with Washington.
After plans for high-level talks last month on the future of the Kaesong estate collapsed over a protocol dispute, Pyongyang proposed direct, high-level dialogue with the US.