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2009/06/25 10:30 KST

*** TOPIC OF THE WEEK (Part 1)

North Korea Offers to Lift Border-crossing Restrictions

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- The two Koreas failed to agree on the future of a joint industrial park in the North's border town of Kaesong and the fate of a detained South Korean worker in talks held on June 19, though the sides left room for further negotiations. And in an unusual move, North Korea offered to lift a nearly eight-month-long restriction on South Korean travel to the Kaesong complex just north of the demilitarized zone.

   Though North Korea indicated its willingness to completely lift restrictions on inter-Korean border-crossings imposed last December on employees of South Korean companies operating in the industrial zone, the two Koreas failed to narrow their differences during the three-hour meeting on wage and rent issues and agreed to meet again on July 2.

   The June 19 meeting was a follow-up to talks on June 11 in which the North demanded higher wages and rent while the South called for the release of the detained worker. North Korea pressed for South Korean firms to quadruple monthly wages for local workers to US$300 from the current $70-$80 and for $500 million in land use fees. South Korean developers of the complex paid $16 million for a 50 year contract on 1 million pyeong of land (approximately 3.3 square kilometers) when the park opened in 2005.

   The inter-Korean talks, only the second since the inauguration of Seoul's conservative Lee Myung-bak government in February last year, came amid growing confrontation between North Korea and the outside world. The U.N. Security Council punished North Korea for its May 25 nuclear test by sharpening financial sanctions and allowing searches of North Korean vessels suspected of carrying missile and nuclear materials. Pyongyang vowed to bolster its nuclear deterrence in response and threatened military clashes in case of search attempts.

   Kim Young-tak, who led the South Korean delegation to the inter-Korean talks in Kaesong, said in a press briefing that the North is willing to lift border-crossing limits. "There were no strings attached. The North said it intends to do so to help make business easier for the South Korean companies." North Korea significantly reduced the number of people and vehicles allowed to cross the inter-Korean border on Dec. 1 last year in protest over what it called Seoul's "confrontational" policy. It also capped the number of South Koreans allowed to stay within the industrial enclave to 880.

   Seoul proposed the two Koreas hold joint surveys of industrial zones abroad to "enhance the international competitiveness of the inter-Korean industrial park in Kaesong." The South suggested the two sides begin an inspection of industrial zones in Asia next month, starting with China and Vietnam, and later in Central Asia and then in the United States and South America.

   "The proposal for joint surveys was made to seek a reasonable solution for problems raised by both sides regarding the Kaesong complex and to make the industrial park internationally competitive," Kim said. "We urged the North to promptly withdraw restrictions on South Koreans' stay in Kaesong, guarantee free border transit, telecommunication and customs clearance, and to organize and run a joint committee on immigration."

   The South Korean delegation also made it clear that the North's demands for renegotiation on the land lease hike was unacceptable, Kim said. "But we explained that building nurseries for the children of North Korean workers who are mostly young women was negotiable along with the transit restriction," he said. "The North repeated its demands (for a four-fold monthly wage hike to $300 per worker and a 31-fold hike in rent to $500 million) and repeatedly proposed that the two sides start with discussing the land lease hike."

   In a 40-minute speech, the South Korean delegation presented three main principles for the development of the industrial complex, Kim said. "The first is that the two Koreas strictly abide to inter-Korean agreements, contracts and rules, and the second is that the development of the complex should be based on economic fundamentals and remain unaffected by political or military situations," Kim said. "The third is that the two sides maintain a future-oriented vision to develop it into an internationally competitive industrial complex."

   In April, North Korea declared all contracts governing the park "null and void," protesting Seoul's toughened policy on Pyongyang. In a sign of growing stress on businesses, a clothing firm pulled out this month in the first withdrawal from the Kaesong park. The venture currently hosts 105 firms making clothes, kitchenware, electronic equipment and other labor-intensive goods with about 40,000 North Korean workers.

   Despite having failed to close the gap on major issues such as the release of South Korean detainee Yu Sung-jin, who was apprehended in March for allegedly criticizing the North's regime and encouraging a female North Korean worker to defect, the two sides showed their willingness to keep the talks alive. "While refusing to accept the letter written by Yu's family, the North Koreans asked us to let his family know that he is fine," Kim said.

   North Korea, however, reportedly criticized the recent South Korea-U.S. pledge of strengthened solidarity to press the North for denuclearization and a stipulation that inter-Korean unification would come about under a free democracy and a market economy. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and U.S. president Barack Obama agreed at their summit meeting in Washington on June 16 to bolster and develop the bilateral alliance into a strategic partnership and vowed strict sanctions against the North for its provocative behavior.

   President Lee affirmed that Seoul could not accept the North's excessive demands on rent and wage hikes in his talks with Obama, and hinted at a possible pullout from the joint park. "We cannot really know what will happen if they continue on this path," he said. Lee also pledged to pursue reunification with the North "on the principles of a free democracy and a market economy."

   North Korean media denounced President Lee's remarks on the fate of the Kaesong industrial zone as "shameful." The North's state-run broadcasters also questioned why inter-Korean issues that could only be solved through the Korean people themselves were brought before outside parties.

   North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported on the inter-Korean meeting on June 19, saying it was arranged in a very difficult situation owing to the recent cooling of relations. The report also noted the North's delegation chided the South for deciding to fully participate in a U.S.-led anti-proliferation campaign and for not taking a sincere approach to the talks.

   "The south side's behavior cannot be interpreted otherwise than a deliberate and premeditated act to deny even the work in the Kaesong Industrial Zone (KIZ), the only lever for cooperation between the (North and the South)," the report said. The North also urged the South to refrain from doing anything that would run contrary to the aspiration of the nation, and to take a sincere stance towards the work at Kaesong and the talks aimed at improving it.

   As regards to its demand for land use and wage hikes, the North claimed that it advanced the proposals "taking into full consideration practices observed in special economic zones in other countries," as well as the political, economic and military peculiarities of the Kaesong complex. The KCNA said the North Korean delegation insisted that the South receive "the biggest profits" from the complex from a political, economic and military point of view.

   "The north side called to task the south side for laying hurdles in the way of the working contact on the work in the KIZ, evading its responsibility and duty and creating complexity by raising an issue irrelevant to the revision of the contracts and urged it to sincerely approach the discussion of issues with a correct attitude and stand," the news agency said.

   North Korea's main newspaper, meanwhile, denounced the Seoul-Washington summit. "The newly-minted U.N. sanctions against North Korea for its nuclear test and missile launches wouldn't cower the North Korean people; on the contrary, it is strengthening their resolute stance to enhance the nation's self-defense capability."

   A column titled "Revealing the true strength of (North) Korean people" in Rodong Sinmun, official newspaper of the Worker's Party, said June 20 it was "ridiculous and preposterous of our enemies to call for enhanced sanctions on us," adding, "Our people live based on the spirit of self-reliance. Our people wouldn't flinch an eyelid" when faced with the international sanctions.

   The new U.N. resolution includes a ban on shipments of arms and nuclear or missile-related parts to and from North Korea and calls on member states to carry out searches of vessels suspected of carrying banned cargo. The newspaper also said that dialogue wouldn't work for "imperialist robbers," adding that the "North Korean military is demanding to 'let the gun speak' to them instead."

   North Korea will counter "a pistol with a cannon, a cannon with a missile, a sanction with revenge, and a nuclear weapon with a nuclear weapon," it said. Calling for North Korean people's solidarity, it said it would continue to be victorious because all people are firmly united and that "there will be more miracles in store in this land that will surprise the world."