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NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 92 (February 4, 2010)

Koreas Agree to Discuss Easier Access to Kaesong Complex in Military Talks

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- South and North Korea on Feb. 1 agreed to use future military talks to discuss easier cross-border access to their joint industrial estate, though they failed to reach a compromise on wages and other key issues.

   At a meeting held in the North's border town of Kaesong, Seoul insisted both sides first discuss transportation, customs clearance and communications at the Kaesong industrial park as well as housing for North Korean workers, according to Seoul's unification ministry.

   In contrast, the North claimed wage hikes should be on top of the agenda, the ministry said, adding that the two delegations could not hammer out a compromise and set the date for the next round of talks.

   Combining South Korean capital with the North's cheap but skilled labor, the Kaesong industrial estate has been deemed the poster child of inter-Korean economic cooperation, though volatile relations between the archrivals have sporadically jeopardized operations there.

   Currently, 116 South Korean firms operate there, employing more than 40,800 North Korean workers and turning out mostly labor-intensive goods such as electronics, clothing and kitchenware.
"Pay is directly related to productivity, which can be improved only if infrastructure and facilities are improved," chief South Korean delegate Kim Young-tak told reporters after returning from the latest round of talks on Feb. 1.

   "I spent much time trying to make the North Korean side understand why it is so important to quickly resolve the border restrictions and how that is directly related to productivity and competitiveness," he said. "North Korea didn't say how much North Korean workers' wages should be jacked up."

   North Korea has long demanded that wages for its workers at the industrial complex be raised sharply, but South Korea maintains the wage issue should be sidelined until the sides make progress in lifting the border restrictions imposed by the North.

   Seoul also contends that the minimum monthly wage of around US$58, agreed at previous talks, be maintained till the end of July this year. At the second working-level talks held in June 2009, the North demand a four-fold increase in wages for North Korean workers to around $300.

   According to the ministry, the two sides agreed that the issues of transportation, customs clearance and communication would be included in future military talks, and discussions on accommodations for workers and wage hikes will continue through inter-governmental working-level talks in the future.

   Seoul will inform Pyongyang of a concrete date and venue of the military talks in an appropriate manner, the ministry said. The North proposed on Jan. 22 that the two Koreas hold working-level military talks to discuss the three issues.

   The talks in Kaesong were the second meeting this year focusing on ways to boost the competitiveness of the park. The sides had met for three days in Kaesong on Jan. 19-20 but failed to reach an agreement on mutual objectives, as the South refused to accept North Korea's demand that pay raises be negotiated during the meetings.


South Korean Buddhist Leader Makes Rare Trip to North Korea

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- South Korea's largest Buddhist sect said on Feb. 3 that its leader visited North Korea on Jan. 30-Feb. 2 in an effort to promote bilateral religious exchanges, despite sharpened military tension on the Korean Peninsula.
Debriefing on the rare trip to the socialist country, the Jogye order said Rev. Jaseung met with leaders of the Buddhist Federation of (North) Korea, the North's body of the religion, to explore ways of reinforcing Buddhist exchanges and other non-government exchanges between the Buddhist sects of the two Koreas.

   "Rev. Jaseung agreed with North Korean Buddhist leaders on comprehensive exchanges and cooperation. We hope the agreement will help improve inter-Korean ties and exchanges," the Buddhist sect said.

   In line with the agreement, up to 4,500 South Korean Buddhist adherents will visit the Singye Temple on Mt. Kumgang on the North's east coast in March, it said, adding they will make the trip in three groups. The Jogye order, however, failed to disclose the specific timetable.

   The temple, which was left in ruins during the 1950-53 Korean War, was restored in 2007 after five years of work supported by the Jogye order but soon became off-limits to South Korean tourists because of a shooting incident at the mountain in July 2008.

   A large group of South Korean civilians will visit Mt. Kumgang for the first time since the suspension of the tour program. A South Korean female tourist was shot dead by a North Korean solider there in July 2008, and Seoul promptly halted the Mt. Kumgang tour program. North Korea has recently called for the resumption of its program.

   The visit comes as tensions remain high after North Korea lobbed artillery shells into seas near their disputed maritime border in late January. The South immediately fired a barrage of warnings shorts, and no deaths or damage were reported. North Korea said the shelling was part of a regular military exercise and vowed to continue to fire artillery.