(2nd LD) S. Korea preps for talks with N. Korea over Kaesong park
(ATTN: UPDATES with more details, comments in paras 6-7, 9, 14-15)
SEOUL, Aug. 8 (Yonhap) -- South Korea on Thursday began preparing in earnest for a fresh round of talks next week with North Korea on the revival of a suspended joint industrial park in the communist country.
Preparation for talks came a day after Pyongyang made a surprise proposal that working-level officials from both sides meet in the North Korean border town of Kaesong on Aug. 14 to discuss reopening the factory zone. Seoul agreed to the overture hours later, paving the way for the meeting.
The Ministry of Unification, which handles inter-Korean affairs, said it officially notified North Korea of Seoul's acceptance of Pyongyang's proposal earlier on Thursday. The message was faxed to the North's chief delegate, Pak Chol-su, using the inter-Korean communication line that runs through the truce village of Panmunjom, a ministry official said.
It also said the North replied with a message addressed to Kim Ki-woong, the South's chief delegate at the talks, conveying its hope that the planned meeting will bear fruit, a possible sign that the communist country wants to settle outstanding differences that have snagged negotiations in the past. Responding to the South's message is out of the ordinary for Pyongyang.
The two sides met six times in July but made no headway, primarily due to differences over safeguards.
Seoul has maintained that the North must accept responsibility for the shutdown that may have caused damages upwards of 1.05 trillion won (US$943.8 million), and guarantee it will not take any action in the future that can result in another work stoppage. The North has so far dodged responsibility by blaming the South and called for the immediate normalization of the complex, which is viewed as the last symbol of inter-Korean rapprochement.
The North's latest proposal, meanwhile, comes after more than a week of silence following the South's demand for "final talks" to resolve all outstanding issues surrounding operations at Kaesong. The ultimatum was made by Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae on July 28, with Seoul making clear it over the weekend that it cannot wait forever for the North to reply.
The inter-Korean park has been shuttered since early April after Pyongyang withdrew its 53,000 workers from the complex amid heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
A South Korean official claimed that the North in general appears to have taken a more positive and forward-looking stance now on outstanding issues compared to the past. He added this is the reason that Seoul swiftly accepted the North's proposal. The official, however, made clear that Seoul will again define its position on the safeguard issue and that Pyongyang must accept if it wants to reopen the factory park.
While declining to forecast what results the talks would bring about, the official said the government is making preparations for the talks with a goal "to make the upcoming talks the last ones."
"We will make utmost efforts to draw reasonable ways to get the industrial park back on track," he said.
Despite the possibility that next round of talks may make headway, the state-run Export-Import Bank of Korea said two companies that applied for insurance payments received a combined 5.5 billion won Thursday. Such a move will transfer ownership of their asset in the North border town to the government.
A total of 109 companies have requested insurance payment totaling 280.9 billion won.
Local observers said that payment of insurance money marked the first step in Seoul's move to take "grave" measures announced last month, which could lead to the eventual closure of the complex.
Some have said that the next meeting may be the last chance the two sides have of dealing with differences, since Seoul and Washington will conduct joint military drills later in the month that can affect cross-border talks.