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*** TOPIC OF THE WEEK (Part 2)

Seoul Urges Pyongyong to Accept Talks on Kaesong Industrial Complex

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- South Korea renewed its urging of North Korea to accept its proposal for working-level talks to discuss the normalization of the suspended joint industrial park in the North Korean border town of Kaesong.

   The Kaesong Industrial Complex, where 123 South Korean companies employ 53,000 North Korean workers, has been shut down since early April when Pyongyang withdrew all of its workers, citing "the South's provocations" against the communist country, namely South Korean-U.S. joint military exercises. North Korea, without answering the South's call for talks, has repeatedly mentioned the normalization of the joint factory park and blamed the South for its suspension.

   "To build trust related to the Kaesong Industrial Complex, there needs to be efforts to allow the local companies to retrieve production materials and finished goods, which requires working-level talks," Seoul's Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Hyung-suk said in a press briefing on May 21.

   Since the North has not responded to Seoul's calls for talks, Kim said it is difficult to determine Pyongyang's intentions.

   From April 11 onward, Seoul has persistently asked the North to come to the negotiating table to discuss outstanding issues, but has received no response from the North, which demanded that the South respond to its demand for "fundamental problems."

   Kim said that despite Seoul's view that the North's demands for removing "fundamental problems" to the Kaesong issue cannot be accepted, the government is willing to touch on all matters that can build trust. The fundamental issues mentioned by the North include the halting of all joint South Korea-U.S. exercises, and measures to prevent media outlets from insulting the supreme dignity of the country's leadership.

   Kim pointed out that North Korea has sent fax messages to several South Korean companies with factories in the border town stating that it wants the talks, so there should be no reason why it would then avoid the discussions.

   The official also made clear that it was the North that pulled all of its workers from the complex on April 9, effectively bringing operations at the complex to a halt. Kim said Pyongyang's attempt to blame the South for the temporary closure is unjust.

   Turning down Seoul's call for talks, North Korea on May 20 asked South Korea to clarify its stance on the future of the joint industrial complex and state whether it is willing to address "fundamental issues that have caused the trouble."

   In a statement issued by a spokesman of the General Bureau for the Special Zone Development Guidance, North Korea accused South Korea of distorting facts concerning the suspended industrial complex. The statement did not elaborate on the "fundamental issues" but the communist country had previously demanded a halt to all American-involved joint military exercises in the South as a precondition for reopening the factory zone.

   The North's spokesman said Pyongyang will decide its course of action on the Kaesong Industrial Complex depending on how South Korea responds to its demand for "fundamental issues." North Korea also cited alleged South Korean media insults of its regime as a reason for its action against the industrial complex.

   South Korea dismissed the North's demands as unacceptable and renewed its earlier proposal for dialogue to resolve the dispute.

   "The North must come to the negotiating table as soon as possible to alleviate the plight of our companies that have factories at Kaesong," a Unification Ministry official said, requesting that he not be identified.

   He pointed out that the alleged South Korean media insults of the North's leadership and the joint military exercises between Seoul and Washington had nothing to do with the industrial complex.

   Meanwhile, a lawmaker from the main opposition Democratic Party said that he received a tip from a source with connections to the North who indicated a willingness by Pyongyang to approve the visit of South Korean businessmen if they get permission from the North's National Economic Cooperation Federation, which has an office in Beijing.

   Rep. Hong Ihk-pyo claimed Seoul government also got the same message but rejected it.

   The unification ministry refuted the lawmaker's remarks and said though one of its official's received a message similar to the one sent to Hong, the proposal came through a third party source and there is no way to know if the North Korean Economic Cooperation Federation actually made the offer or was given the authority by Pyongyang to act as an intermediary.

   "The information was first conveyed late Monday and the government official told the messenger that the North Korean economic body needs to contact Seoul directly if it wants to allow South Korean businessmen to visit Kaesong," an official said. He said no such confirmation came from the North.

   The official, who wanted to remain anonymous, said if the message arrives through official channels, they will review it and take appropriate measures.

   However, he said that because of the administrative and military actions needed, there is a need for working level official talks.

   A Seoul official said on May 22 that the government wouldn't allow its businessmen to visit their plants in Kaesong until their safe passage across the border is guaranteed by Pyongyang through official channels.

   "We're still trying to verify the reported North Korean message," a South Korean Unification Ministry spokesperson Park Soo-jin told reporters.

   As the North continues to refuse the South's call for talks and sticks to "fundamental measures" as preconditions for the normalization of relations, the future of the Kaesong park is uncertain and it is very likely for the two sides to exchange offensives and defensives for a considerable time.

   South Korean businesses are concerned that the facilities in the complex will get rusty if the current deadlock is prolonged for a couple of months and the complex cannot be normalized before the rainy season starts.

   North Korea analysts said it cannot be ruled out that North Korea may accept the South's call for working-level talks in a surprise manner. The south wishes to discuss their retrieval of the production materials and finished goods remaining in the complex as well as the visit of South Korean businessmen to the industrial zone.

   Chang Yong-seok, a senior researcher at the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University, said although 50 days have passed since the complex has closed, the possibility is slim that a dramatic turning point will occur in the next 50 days. As the reasons for his negative prospects, Chang cited the North's tendency of not acting affirmatively without an adequate cause and the South Korean government's strong stand against the North's provocative behavior.

   What are worth watching now are the results of the South Korea-China summit meeting scheduled for the end of next month.

   Yang Moo-jin, a political science professor at the University of North Korean Studies, said it would be necessary to closely watch the development of the situation after the summit meeting because the outcome of the summit talks can be a future barometer for inter-Korean relations.