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2010/03/09 10:44 KST
Seoul closely watching N. Korea's opening of port to China: officials

  
By Byun Duk-kun
SEOUL, March 9 (Yonhap) -- South Korea is keeping a close watch over North Korea's efforts to draw greater foreign investment to one of its ports, as the move might indicate Pyongyang is opening up to the outside world and signal its return to stalled international nuclear talks, officials said Tuesday.

   The North has agreed to give a 50-year lease on its Rajin port to Russia, and the country is also in talks with a Chinese company on extending its 10-year lease by another decade, according to an official from China's Jilian Province, currently in Beijing for the National People's Congress.

   The North's opening of the port on its east coast has a significant meaning for China as it will give the latter a direct access to the Pacific, but it also means millions of dollars, at the minimum, in investment for the cash-strapped North.

   Officials at Seoul's foreign ministry said the North's opening of its port or its economy was a positive sign, but that it was too early to determine whether the move will also have a positive effect on international efforts to bring North Korea back to the nuclear negotiations.

   "We are trying to confirm the reports, though they appear to be true because they were based on China's official announcement," an official said, asking not to be identified due to the sensitivity of the issue.

   "We are trying to find out the exact details of the contracts (between North Korea and Russia and China)," the official added.

   North Korea has stayed away from the six-way negotiations since December 2008, and says it will not return to the negotiating table unless U.N. sanctions, imposed last year following the North's second nuclear test, are first removed.

   The ministry officials noted Pyongyang's latest efforts to draw in foreign investment may reflect the serious toll U.N. sanctions are imposing on the communist nation.

   Pyongyang is reportedly seeking to attract massive foreign investment under a 10-year economic plan that calls for the establishment of a national development bank with a capital of US$10 billion, an ambitious, if not totally unrealistic, goal for a country with an estimated gross domestic product of only $40 billion.

   Another reason Seoul is closely monitoring the reported deals between North Korea and its allies is because the contracts could weaken or even violate the U.N. sanctions, designed to encourage North Korea behave as a normal state.

   "We will not be able to say whether the deal violates the U.N. sanctions until we look into the actual details of the contract on Rajin port and see how the actual investment is carried out," an official said, asking not to be identified.

   The official, however, noted China, a veto-wielding member of the U.N. Security Council, has not done anything that might damage the purpose of the U.N. sanctions since it voted in favor of the sanctions.

   "It might take two or three years before the actual investment will take place, and China (or Russia) might have thought it would be OK because by then there will be progress in the denuclearization of North Korea" and thus the U.N. sanctions will have been removed, the official said.

   bdk@yna.co.kr
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