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(3rd LD) N. Korea must correctly assess present situation, work with S. Korea: minister

2013/10/15 19:34

(ATTN: UPDATES with more details on Freikauf policy in paras 9-10)

SEOUL, Oct. 15 (Yonhap) -- North Korea must correctly read its present predicament and work with South Korea to improve cross-border relations, Seoul's unification minister said Tuesday.

Speaking to lawmakers at a parliamentary audit session, Ryoo Kihl-jae said Pyongyang needs to realize what it can do to pull off meaningful growth, what actions are best for the future of the Korean people, and make the right decisions.

He pointed out that while the communist country has said it wants denuclearization, it has not given up its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs. The policymaker then criticized the country for unilaterally postponing the family reunions event for people separated by the 1950-53 Korean War, and its verbal attacks against the South.

Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae addresses a parliamentary audit session on Oct. 15, 2013. (Yonhap)

Commenting on the impasse in inter-Korean relations following the agreement to reopen a joint factory park in Kaesong, Ryoo said Seoul is taking a proactive, yet long-term approach to dealing with the North.

"The government will not be swayed by every up and down in relations," the minister emphasized.

He said the channel for dialogue remains open and the two sides need to build trust through dialogue and cooperation.

The official said that Seoul will continue to work with the international community to end the North's nuclear ambitions and is open to the suggestion of resuming six-party talks that were suspended in late 2008, if Pyongyang takes concrete and meaningful steps toward denuclearization.

"For large-scale cooperation like the 'Vision Korea Project' to take place, the nuclear issue needs to be addressed," he emphasized, although making clear that humanitarian aid will continue to be provided to the North regardless of political situation on the peninsula. The vision project is closely linked to bilateral trust building and outlines effort to help the North with social overhead capital development.

The minister then said that Seoul is looking into the feasibility of adopting West Germany's Freikauf policy as a tool to bring back South Korean citizens and prisoners of war (POW) held in the North. Pyongyang holds hundreds of POWs and citizens that were abducted after the cessation of hostilities in the Korean War (1950-53).

The policy, which means "buying freedom," was used to secure the release of East German political prisoners so they could come to the West.

The ministry in charge of managing ties with the North told lawmakers in a separate assessment report that Pyongyang is seeking change, although such attempts have not been successful.

It said the North has made moves to mend fences with China, and arranged for meetings with former U.S. officials in August and September.

"Such moves gained little momentum because Washington has been adamant in calling on the North to first make known its willingness to give up all of its WMD programs," the ministry said.

On the Sept. 16 reopening of the Kaesong Industrial Complex, which had been shut down for more than five months, the ministry said the establishment of new rules for the running of the special business zone is being held up, mainly due to a lack of cooperation from the North.

An investors relation (IR) event for foreign companies interested in setting up operation in the North Korean border town was called off Monday by Seoul, mainly because no headway was made to create new rules for communication, travel and customs inspections. At present only 123 South Korean companies have factories in Kaesong.

Related to the event being canceled, the ministry confirmed the North notified the South earlier in the day that it too did not think holding the investors' seminar would be appropriate under current circumstances.

South Korea notified Pyongyang of its postponement last Friday, with the reply being made through the secretariat of the joint management committee in Kaesong.

The ministry said that despite calls from some circles in society, sanctions imposed after the sinking of a South Korean warship in the Yellow Sea in 2010 will remain in place.

On the proposal made by President Park Geun-hye to create a peace park within the heavily fortified demilitarized zone that separates the two countries, the ministry said the plans can move forward when relations with the North become favorable.

The plan not only requires understanding between the two Koreas but also the international community.

Meanwhile, lawmakers were at odds over how to view recent developments in inter-Korean relations with the ruling party raising concerns that Pyongyang probably made an "about-face" after the South agreed to reopen the Kaesong complex that is a source of hard currency for the cash-strapped country.

Rep. Cho Myung-chul suspected that Seoul may have been "used" by the North, as it was only interested in securing a revenue base and not keen on implementing changes to improve global competitiveness of Kaesong.

Others like Chung Ui-hwa said Seoul should continue to try to cooperate in small areas and after building trust move onto bigger agendas.

On the other hand, main opposition Democratic Party (DP) lawmaker Park Byeong-seug urged the government to take an active position to engage the North in talks.

"The blanket sanctions imposed under the previous administration should be lifted," he said. He argued that with the North restarting operations of the five-megawatt Yongbyon nuclear power plant, time is not on South Korea's side.

DP Rep. Hong Ihk-pyo echoed this view and claimed that imposing sanctions on the North has done nothing to pressure it to change and that the only change has been to push Pyongyang into China's economic sphere.

"Effectively 90 percent of North Korea's trade is with China," he said, adding that this development is not good for efforts to unify the country down the road.