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2009/07/09 11:28 KST


Fate of Detained S. Korean Worker in Kaesong Uncertain for Over 100 Days

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- July 7 marked the 100th day that a South Korean worker named Yu has been held in the Kaesong industrial zone for allegedly slandering the North Korean political regime and encouraging a North Korean female worker to defect from the country.

   Ever since the South Korean worker was detained March 30, South Korea has been denied access to him, despite repeated attempts through various channels. North Korea has merely said over the past weeks that the detained South Korean has been faring well, and there is no problem with his health. But as time passes, his fate is growing uncertain.

   On July 6, the eve of the 100th day of the worker's detention, the unification ministry in Seoul demanded the safe and immediate release of Yu, who works for the South Korean company Hyundai Asan. "We strongly urge North Korea to immediately release Mr. Yu and guarantee our basic rights, including the right to access, under our agreement on the Kaesong industrial complex," said ministry spokesman Chun Hae-sung.

   The two Koreas have met four times since April to discuss a range of issues on the troubled industrial zone that was built as a symbol of inter-Korean cooperation and reconciliation, but that has become a source of disputes on the Korean Peninsula. At each of the meetings, South Korean officials asked to meet Yu and said his detention is the most essential matter concerning Kaesong's future.

   But their North Korean counterparts ignored the requests on the grounds that the custody has nothing to do with Kaesong industrial complex.

   According to a South Korean official who took part in the latest inter-Korean talks on July 2, South officials haven't been able to deliver a letter from Yu's family. "It was like talking to a wall," he said of the encounter with the North Koreans.

   Watchers say that holding Yu could be an effective bargaining chip for North Korea, as it tries to both raise fees for the South's land use in Kaesong and also force Seoul to increase wages for North Korean workers there.

   The latest meeting on July 2 ended after a brief morning session in which the two sides simply read prepared statements. Chun, the unification ministry spokesman, said the two Koreas will set a date for a future meeting through discussions, but added, "At the moment, we don't plan to propose a date."

   North-South Korean relations have deteriorated for over a year. The tourism program at the Mt. Kumgang resort has been halted since last July, when a South Korean woman tourist was shot dead at the resort.

   Hyundai Asan, Yu's employer and also a firm overseeing inter-Korean projects, didn't rule out hope for a better future.

   "There may be bumps along the road, but I am convinced there will be a chance to restart the project," Cho Kun-shik, the company president, told his employees in his monthly address. "A lot of people are pessimistic about inter-Korean business projects, but we must never stop trying."

   In its first official response to the detainee situation on May 1, North Korea said that the South Korean in custody committed the serious crime infringing upon the dignity of the republic (of North Korea), and said it has been deepening its investigation into the South Korean for over a month.

   "A competent institution is now carrying on a deep-going investigation into the case," the North's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said, quoting an unidentified spokesman for the Central Special Zone Development Guidance General Bureau. "The DPRK (North Korea)'s law does not show any mercy to anyone violating its dignity," it said.

   According to the North, "Yu malignantly slandered the dignified system in the DPRK," while "perpetrating grave acts in infringement upon the sovereignty of the DPRK and violation of the relevant law."

   Without further elaboration, the communist state also warned of "consequences" should South Korean authorities continue to raise allegations of human rights abuse over the detention. "If they continue behaving like this, this will only render the situation graver, doing nothing good" to the Kaesong complex, it said.

   At inter-Korean meetings on June 11 and June 19, the North said Yu was doing well and was safe in the North, asking South Korean officials to relay the message to Yu's family in the South. But at the latest meeting in Kaesong on July 2, there was no comment on him.

   Meanwhile, North Korea sent a letter to a representative of the South Korean businesses operating at Kaesong.

   Kim Hak-kwon, chairman of the Kaesong Industrial Council, said the message, which was received June 27, was a rare mention by Pyongyang of the detained engineer.

   "The North in the message said Mr. Yu's crimes are 'grave,'" Kim said over the telephone on July 2. Kim is also chief of Jaeyoung Solutec, a plastics maker that has a factory at the joint park.

   Seoul officials could not say what the detained worker did wrong. On the day of his detention, March 30, the North sent a message to the South saying he criticized the North's political system and tried to persuade a female North Korean worker to defect from the country.

   North Korea holds South Korea's conservative government accountable for the current troubled situation at the industrial park, Kim said. In the letter, the North "tried to explain clearly so that there would be no misunderstanding" with the businesses, he said.


Koreas Fail to Make Progress in Talks Over Joint Industrial Park

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- South and North Korea failed to make progress in their third round of talks July 2, with their positions far apart over a joint industrial park and the fate of a detained worker.

   Pyongyang insisted on hefty rent hikes and refused to discuss the detained South Korean worker, a demand that analysts say is aimed at pressuring Seoul's conservative government to shift course.

   "The North showed no change at all in its attitude, insisting that rent should be addressed foremost," Kim Young-tak, South Korea's chief delegate, said in a press briefing after returning from the joint park in the North's border town of Kaesong.

   The talks were held as inter-Korean relations remained at their lowest point in a decade after Seoul linked aid to the North's denuclearization.

   The third round of inter-Korean talks ended in an hour and 10 minutes in the morning, and North Korea refused to meet again in the afternoon, unification ministry officials said. No date was set for the next round.

   In a 20-minute speech, North Korea's chief delegate, Pak Chol-su, renewed criticism of the Lee Myung-bak government and reiterated that North Korea can no longer grant South Korean firms "special favors" such as low wages and rent at the joint park, Seoul officials said.

   North Korea insisted that monthly wages for local employees be raised four-fold to US$300. It also sought $500 million for a 50-year lease on the park, ditching the $16 million rent deal signed when the park opened in 2004. "Our side made it clear that the rent hike is a baseless demand and should be withdrawn," Kim said.

   In a 50-minute subsequent speech, Kim demanded to know the health condition of the detained worker, Yu, and pressed for his release. The Hyundai Asan Corp. engineer who works at the joint park has been held incommunicado since March on accusations of "slandering" the North's political system and trying to persuade a North Korean female employee to defect to the South. "North Korea showed no response to this point," Kim said.

   In a separate move, South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan said he will raise Yu's case at the ASEAN Regional Forum in Thailand later this month to draw international attention to it.

   South Korea also called on the North to "immediately stop" the denunciations of the South Korean president that it carries via its state media almost daily. Some dispatches July 2 described the Lee administration as "evil," "fascist" and "traitors."

   The businesses operating at the park were dismayed. Citing a sales decrease and security concerns, a fur coat maker withdrew from the park last month, and a few others were considering suspending production temporarily.

   "We expected some progress about the border transit and the dormitory," Yoo Chang-geun, vice chairman of the Kaesong Industrial Council that represents the firms investing in the park, said. "We are deeply disappointed."

   The North had offered to lift a border traffic curfew, and South Korea proposed to build a dormitory and a nursery for North Korean workers. Those offers made no progress.

   The industrial park is the last surviving cross-border venture to come out of the first summit between then South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. Tourism projects that took South Koreans to the North's historic and scenic spots were all suspended last year as political relations unraveled.

   The joint park hosts more than 100 South Korean firms making clothing, kitchenware, electronic equipment and other labor-intensive goods with about 40,000 North Korean workers. The firms paid more than $26 million in wages to the North Korean government last year.


S. Korea Not Yet Mulling Higher-level Talks with N. Korea: Ministry

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- South Korea has no plan yet to push for higher-level meetings with North Korea, despite little progress in on-and-off working-level talks over the operation of a joint industrial complex there, the unification ministry said July 3.

   The ministry was responding to growing doubts about the efficacy of the talks between director-general-level officials from the two Koreas, whose latest round was held July 2, but produced no agreement. No date for a next round was set.

   The North has demanded that monthly wages for its 40,000 workers at about 100 South Korean small- and medium-sized firms at the Kaesong industrial park be quadrupled to US$300. It is also calling to increase rent for the land to $500 million from the current $16 million under a 50-year contract. South Korea made it clear that such demands are unacceptable.

   During the three rounds of formal negotiations in recent weeks, South Korean representatives urged the North to first release a South Korean worker who has been detained in the North since late March on charges of criticizing the communist nation's political system. Seoul views the detention as a key issue on the operation of the fragile joint venture, once a token of detente on the divided peninsula.

   The North has snubbed the South's requests to release the worker, even refusing to let him to meet his family or South Korean officials.

   Many agree that the two Koreas are unlikely to reach a compromise in the near future.

   The ministry said, however, that it is premature to seek higher-level dialogue with the North.

   "It is a matter related to the general situation of South and North Korean relations," ministry spokesman Chun Hae-sung said in a press briefing. "The matter of Yu's detention is not a matter involving the format of negotiations. "For now, we are not considering the issue of upgrading the level of talks."

   The two Koreas held a pair of summits between their leaders in 2000 and 2007, in which they agreed to a set of tension-easing measures and joint economic projects. The two sides had relatively frequent meetings at the Cabinet level, including talks between defense ministers during the past decade, when the South was ruled by liberal administrations.

   Inter-Korean ties turned frosty with the launch of the conservative Lee Myung-bak government, which linked its approach toward Pyongyang with progress in efforts to denuclearize it.

   The working-level talks on the industrial zone are the first and only face-to-face consultation channel between the government officials of the two Koreas under the Lee administration that took power early last year.