Two Koreas hold rare talks on joint zone

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North and South Korea held rare talks today 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 today 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.”

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