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NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 94 (February 18, 2010)

South Korea Propose Military Talks with North Korea

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- South Korea proposed to North Korea on Feb. 12 that working-level military officials meet later this month to discuss restrictions hindering transportation and communications in and out of a joint factory park in the North.

   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 in Kaesong, where some 110 South Korean firms employ 42,000 North Korean workers.

   "We have proposed to the North that talks be held on Feb. 23 at the House of Peace near Panmunjom," said Won Tae-jae, spokesman for Seoul's defense ministry. The House of Peace is located on the South Korean side of the truce village of Panmunjom, inside the Demilitarized Zone.

   In an unusual move, Pyongyang, which has been reluctant to formally embrace South Korea's demands concerning the border transit, was the first to propose the military talks on Jan. 26. Seoul had asked to schedule the talks after the two sides finish negotiations on steps to restart the suspended cross-border tours, which ended without a concrete outcome on Feb. 8.

   "We look forward to a positive answer as it was the North which first asked to hold the military talks," spokesman Won told reporters.

   The impoverished North, which relies on outside aid to feed its 24 million people, has tried to reach out to the South since last summer in an about-face that analysts say shows the regime is feeling the pain of U.N. sanctions imposed for its nuclear test in May last year.

   Still, the North has been reluctant to accept South Korea's requests for easier access to Kaesong and other measures aimed at boosting the park's competitiveness, as the regime is concerned such moves could shake the stability of the reclusive nation.
Dismissing the issues over the border transit as unessential, Pyongyang has first demanded pay raises for its workers. The minimum monthly wage for a North Korean worker remains slightly less than US$58 currently.

   North Korea has also been raising military tensions with the South, firing artillery shells into the ocean near a disputed maritime border for three days in a row last month. Analysts say that Pyongyang's provocative gesture may be part of its attempt to highlight the necessity of a peace treaty to replace the 1953 Korean War armistice, one of the North's key preconditions for its return to the international nuclear talks.

   North Korea, which operates a military of 1.2 million troops, is believed to possess enough plutonium to build at least six atomic bombs.


South Korea to Deliver Anti-viral Sanitizer to North Korea

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- South Korea said on Feb. 16 that it will send 1 billion won (US$880,000) worth of hand sanitizer next week to North Korea to help the impoverished neighbor combat the spread of the H1N1 flu virus.

   The shipment of 200,000 liters of sanitizer, scheduled for Feb. 22, comes after South Korea delivered some $15 million in anti-viral medications to the North in December in the first state-level cross-border humanitarian aid in nearly two years.

   Flu infections are usually transmitted via contact with the hands, raising demand for hand sanitation products. North Korea first acknowledged cases of Influenza A virus infection on Dec. 9, but it has yet to report any flu-related deaths.

   The hand sanitizer will be transported to the North Korean border town of Kaesong on South Korean trucks across the military demarcation line, Unification Ministry spokesman Chun Hae-sung said.

   "North Korea agreed to accept the aid on Feb. 22," he told reporters, adding about 20 25-ton trucks will likely be mobilized to deliver the aid.

   The Tamiflu aid in December marked the first humanitarian assistance provided by the South Korean government to North Korea since conservative President Lee Myung-bak took office in Seoul in early 2008. Lee cut off the unconditional aid that his liberal predecessors had shipped to the North over the past decade, conditioning exchanges on progress in the North's denuclearization.

   The inter-Korean aid comes amid a flurry of diplomacy in the region on ways to resume a multilateral negotiating forum on ending the North's nuclear weapons program.