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NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 91 (January 28, 2010)

North Korea Proposes Talks with South Korea amid Military Tension

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- Despite escalating military tension on the Korean Peninsula, North Korea has made a series of proposals for inter-Korean talks to discuss operations at a joint industrial complex and the resumption of tours to a mountain resort. The North's recent conciliatory gestures have coincided with its continued saber-rattling.

   The series of proposals for dialogue comes amid heightened tension after the North's top decision-making body, the National Defense Commission, warned of a "sacred war" against the South in mid-January over unconfirmed contingency plans that Seoul had reportedly made in preparation for regime collapse in Pyongyang.

   Most recently, North Korea fired dozens of artillery shells into waters near the disputed sea border on Jan. 27, escalating tension two days after Pyongyang declared the waters near the South's northernmost islands of Baeknyeong and Daecheong in the Yellow Sea as no-sail zones.

   At the same time, Pyongyang has proposed talks for operation of the industrial complex in the North's border town of Kaesong and inter-Korean tour projects that bring South Koreans to scenic North Korean sites.

   The recent provocation came as the two Koreas plan to meet Feb. 1 to discuss pending issues associated with the Kaesong industrial complex. The North also proposed to hold a round of working-level military talks related to the complex, although a date has yet to be finalized.

   South Korea offered a counter-proposal for military talks on Feb. 8 to discuss resuming suspended tour programs to Mt. Kumgang and the ancient city of Kaesong, once the capital of the Koryo Dynasty (A.D. 918-1392).

   North Korea first proposed talks on Jan. 14 on resuming joint tours to the scenic mountain and the historic city. The tours were suspended after inter-Korean ties unraveled in 2008.

   As for the proposal for military working-level talks, Seoul replied it would like to hold them after the Feb. 1 meeting on the Kaesong industrial park. The North first proposed holding the military talks on Jan. 26 to sort out problems raised by the South, guaranteeing free passage, quick customs clearance and free use of telecommunication devices in the Kaesong enclave. On Jan. 25, South Korea proposed holding talks with North Korea on Feb. 8 to discuss ways to resume suspended tourism programs to Mt. Kumgang and Kaesong.

   The two sides met on Jan. 19-21 in their first contact this year, which ended with only a date set for another round on Feb. 1. The two Koreas remain deadlocked on whether pay raises for North Korean workers should be put on the agenda when they meet again.

   Following the talks, the North dismissed the South Korean demand for freer access and communication as an "unessential" and "artificial obstacle" impeding progress in the improvement of the complex. North Korea considers easy access to its soil a threat to its regime stability, strictly controlling the flow of information and people across the border.

   However, Seoul has long demanded that Pyongyang ease restrictions concerning customs clearance, passage of South Korean workers and communications in and out of the border complex, where some 110 South Korean firms employ 42,000 skilled local workers for low wages. Operations there have often been hit by political strains, with the North expelling hundreds of South Korean staff and intermittently restricting access in 2008.

   North Korea is demanding that pay raises must first be agreed to, while the South has brushed off the demand, saying productivity has yet to match current wages at the park. The minimum monthly wage for a North Korean worker remains just under US$58.

   Tours to Mt. Kumgang on the east coast were suspended in July 2008 after a South Korean tourist was shot dead by a North Korean soldier near the resort. The tour to the North Korean border town of Kaesong near the west coast was also suspended in November of the same year.

   Seoul has maintained its position that the death of the tourist must be investigated thoroughly by South Korean authorities before resuming the travel programs.

   Both tours had been important sources of money for the cash-strapped communist country, which was slapped with a fresh round of U.N. sanctions for its nuclear test in May last year. It said in a New Year's Day message on Jan. 1 that its intention to improve ties with South Korea remains "unshakable."

   Pyongyang has recently been putting significant emphasis on economic prosperity, reflected by the proposed talks on operations of the joint industrial complex and inter-Korean tour projects, both of which have been core money-making vehicles.

   On Jan. 25, South Korea's unification minister sent a message to his North Korean counterpart proposing a new date and venue for negotiations on resuming the stalled tourism programs in an apparent attempt to gain more control over tenuous relations between the two nations.

   The Unification Ministry said that Minister Hyun In-taek's message was addressed to Kim Yang-gon, the director of the Unification Front Department of North Korea's Workers' Party. Hyun proposed the idea of holding a working-level meeting on the issue on Feb. 8 in Kaesong.

   The message served as a reply to the North's earlier proposal to meet this week to discuss the fate of the tourism programs, which ran for about 10 years but ended in 2008. The North's Asia-Pacific Peace Committee, a nongovernmental organ overseeing inter-Korean cooperation projects, proposed earlier this month that the two Koreas meet at the Mount Kumgang resort in the North on Jan. 26-27.

   Kim, the North's key policy maker for inter-Korean issues, also chairs the committee, which previously oversaw the tourism project along with the South Korean company Hyundai Asan. "Although Kim also heads the committee, we decided it was more appropriate to send the message to the director of the Unification Front Department of the North Korea's Workers' Party, because he is in charge of inter-Korean relations under that official title," said Unification Ministry spokesman Chun Hae-sung.

   Seoul also demanded that Pyongyang establish safety measures for tourists through inter-Korean talks. While the North proposed discussing the stalled tour programs through civilian channels, the South apparently wanted to have government-to-government negotiations on the matter.

   By naming Kim as the recipient of Hyun's message, Seoul is signaling to Pyongyang that the two are the chief negotiation partners. The officials met in Seoul last August, when Kim visited the capital as North Korean leader Kim Jong-il's delegate to express condolences over former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung's death.

   Seoul also informed Pyongyang about its plan to send 10,000 tons of corn to the North. "We informed the North that the corn aid will be sent from China's Dalian to the North's Chongjin," Chun said. "We told them it will take at least 40 days to purchase, pack and ship the corn."

   Seoul made the offer to provide food aid in October last year, but Pyongyang was reluctant to accept it. On Jan. 15, the North finally said it gave the green light to the aid shipment.

   On Jan. 26, North Korea proposed a joint event to mark the 10th anniversary of the June 15 Joint Declaration this year, the North's official media reported. South and North Korea adopted the declaration for reconciliation and cooperation at the inter-Korean summit talks in 2000.

   The North Korean side of the Committee for the Implementation of the June 15 Declaration made the proposal during its plenary meeting in Pyongyang earlier in the day, the (North) Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said.

   The meeting adopted a letter that "cordially proposes to hold a joint event in which those from all walks of life from the two Koreas and overseas Koreans who cherish national unity and unification will participate," said the agency, monitored in Seoul.

   High-ranking officials from the parliament, party and cabinet, including Yang Hyong-sop, vice president of the Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly, attended the gathering, the agency added.

   Analysts say the North, hit harder by international sanctions following its nuclear and missile tests last year, seems willing to promote economic exchanges with the South despite political and military tensions.

   Pyongyang is also defying international pressure to return to the six-party talks on ending its nuclear ambitions, demanding the U.N. first lift sanctions imposed after its nuclear and missile tests early last year and sign a peace treaty to replace an armistice that ended the 1950-53 Korean War.