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(2nd LD) Koreas fail to settle wage row at joint factory

2015/07/17 00:29

(ATTN: UPDATES throughout)

KAESONG/SEOUL, July 16 (Yonhap) -- South and North Korea on Thursday failed to settle their months-long dispute over wages of North Korean workers employed at their joint factory park in rare inter-Korean talks held in the communist country.

Delegations from Seoul and Pyongyang sat together in the North Korean border town of Kaesong earlier in the day over the tangle, which started with the North's unilateral decision in February to hike the minimum wage for about 55,000 North Korean laborers.

The North demanded the per-hour minimum wage be lifted by 5.18 percent to US$74, but the South had resisted the steeper-than-agreed hike before the two countries agreed last week to settle the issue through dialogue.

The ground rules set when the joint cooperation project opened in 2004 capped the maximum rate of wage increase at 5 percent per year.

The meeting ended without any major progress as the two sides failed to narrow gaps on the wage issue, a South Korean official said after the talks broke down.

The two sides intend to meet again to put the issue to renegotiation, although a date has not been set, he noted.

Pak Chol-su, a vice director of North Korea's special economic zone development department, who heads the North Korean delegation, had earlier expressed hopes for a favorable outcome as the negotiations kicked off inside the Kaesong complex.

Touching on the severe drought reported in the North, Pak also said recent rainfalls "pretty much improved harvest."

   The Thursday meeting marks a rare opportunity of inter-Korean contacts with the countries mired in long-running military and diplomatic tensions.

It was the first meeting of their joint committee in charge of running the Kaesong Industrial Complex since the last one was held in June last year. It was also the first government contact between the countries following a working-level military dialogue convened in October in 2014.

Amid the bellicose mood, the North abruptly called off U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's planned peace-promoting visit to the Kaesong park in May.

The joint factory park, the result of the first-ever inter-Korean summit in 2000, is the last remaining symbol of once-vibrant inter-Korean reconciliation. It has also served as a core source of foreign currency for the cash-strapped North, while providing South Korean companies with a cheap but skilled workforce.

A total of 124 South Korean firms, mostly small- and medium-sized manufacturers, run factories at the complex under the auspice of the South Korean government.

The operation of the complex has been a yardstick of ups and downs for inter-Korean ties.

In April 2013, the North unilaterally shut down the park for about four months amid worsening tensions on the peninsula.

Since the unilateral wage hike demand in February, the countries agreed to tentatively freeze the minimum wage at the current $70.35 level, allowing the two sides to buy time for talks on the wage issue.

Also discussed in the Thursday meeting was how to tighten public order among South Koreans moving in and out of the complex.

The North has vowed to take punitive actions on South Koreans who are caught carrying banned goods into the North including USB memory sticks or newspapers from the outside world.

Lee Sang-min (R), the head of the South Korean delegation, and his counterpark Pak Chol-su shake hands before holding a meeting at the Kaesong Industrial Park on July 16, 2015. (Yonhap) 	Lee Sang-min (R), the head of the South Korean delegation, and his counterpark Pak Chol-su shake hands before holding a meeting at the Kaesong Industrial Park on July 16, 2015. (Yonhap)

pbr@yna.co.kr

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