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*** TOPIC OF THE WEEK (Part 2)

N. Korea Invites S. Korean Bizmen, Officials to Talks on Kaesong Industrial Park

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- In what appeared to be a conciliatory gesture, North Korea on May 28 invited South Korean officials as well as businessmen for talks on reopening a suspended joint industrial complex in its territory, instead of complying with Seoul's call for working-level government officials' talks.

   The joint industrial complex in the North's border city of Kaesong remains shut down since early April when the socialist country unilaterally withdrew all of its 53,000 workers hired by 123 South Korean factories operating there in protest against what they called the South's provocations, including the South Korea-U.S. joint military exercises.

   South Korea has since urged the North to come to the table of dialogue and recently proposed working government-level talks to reopen the factory zone, but North Korea has turned it down, demanding that Seoul should first address "fundamental" issues such as the suspension of joint military exercises with the U.S., which the South dismissed as unacceptable.

   The Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea (CPRK), the North's arm for dealing with cross-border affairs with Seoul, said in a statement that Pyongyang is willing to start talks on the future of the industrial complex.

   The CPRK noted that North Korea has already approved a plan by the South Korean business representatives to visit the industrial complex for maintenance and other purposes.

   "We have given permission for the visit and can even discuss the shipment of products at the industrial complex," it said, adding that if the South Korean entrepreneurs visit the North, discussions can be made on the normalization of the complex.

   The North's committee said it will fully guarantee safe passage of all South Koreans who cross the border for the visit.

   "If the South feels uneasy, it can send members of the Kaesong Industrial District Management Committee with the businessmen," the statement said. The committee is not a government organization but represents the country's interests in Kaesong. Its chairman Hong Yang-ho is a former Ministry of Unification vice minister.

   South Korea's Ministry of Unification, which handles inter-Korean affairs, said in a statement released by the spokesman that the North needs to first accept the working-level talks that were proposed by Seoul earlier in the month.

   "The North's move to invite businessmen can only be viewed as an attempt to distort the cause of the current impasse surrounding the complex," it said, pointing out that the North triggered the crisis by unilaterally pulling out its workers. The statement also said Pyongyang's insistence not to accept the talks is a ploy to cause discord within South Korean society.

   "Such an attempt will fail, and the North should desist from pursuing this policy," the statement emphasized.

   The announcement is in line with the government's long-standing view that only government-to-government discussions can resolve outstanding issues and that business representatives have no authority to discuss the matter.

   In a separate statement, the North's committee criticized Seoul for banning the proposed joint civilian celebrations of the upcoming anniversary of the historic June 15, 1980 inter-Korean summit.

   "The participation of South Koreans in the event must be permitted and if Seoul is fearful of the gathering triggering internal discord, it can send government officials with the group," it said.

   Pro-unification civic activist groups from both Koreas had jointly marked the anniversary almost every year since the historic inter-Korean summit until a conservative government took office in Seoul in 2008.

   The South Korean government of President Park Geun-hye barred this year's joint civilian celebration of the anniversary, saying that it could create discord among South Koreans. The two Koreas, which remain divided since 1945, are in a state of conflict, as they did not sign a peace treaty at the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.

   Operations at the Kaesong industrial park, the last remaining symbol of inter-Korean economic cooperation, came to a complete halt on April 9 for the first time since the complex began operation nine years ago as North Korean laborers did not show up for work.

   North Korea announced the previous day that it would pull out all of its laborers in protest of "South Korean provocations." Pyongyang claimed that Seoul was using Kaesong, a symbol of economic cooperation between the two Koreas, as a pretext for igniting war.

   South Korea reaffirmed its stance after the pullout, stating that the complex should operate as usual and urged the North to normalize operations.

   In a Cabinet meeting on April 9, President Park said that North Korea should stop with its negative behavior and make proper decisions for the sake of the future of the Korean people.

   Park said that it is "very disappointing" that North Korea has decided to suspend operations of the jointly run factory complex in Kaesong city. "It is very disappointing that North Korea abruptly said yesterday that it will temporarily suspend the operations of the Kaesong Industrial Complex that has been operating without any problems," Park said.

   "How long should we see this endless vicious cycle of (North Korea) creating crises before reaching a compromise in exchange for aid and again creating crises before compromise and aid?" she said of Pyongyang's pattern of behavior.

   A unification ministry official said that Seoul will never close down or withdraw from the joint venture and will continue to emphasize that the actions taken by the North are unacceptable and should be reversed.

   "South Korea's stance remains resolute on this matter," the official stressed, highlighting that Kaesong should be looked at in terms of the future of South-North relations.

   Previously, North Korea temporarily prevented South Korean officials and workers from entering Kaesong twice in 2009, but the socialist country had never taken steps to halt operations.

   Some North Korea watchers view North Korea's invitation of South Korean businessmen and officials as a positive sign for the normalization of the industrial park.

   Although the North has not accepted the South's call for working-level government-government talks, the visit of businessmen and officials, if realized, would develop to government-level talks, they said.

   Related to the proposal made by the North, Yang Moo-jin, a political science professor at the University of North Korean Studies, said it is meaningful that the North Korea made the invitation through the CPRK, the North's top organ dealing with inter-Korean affairs.

   "The North may be trying to abide by the promise it made to China through its special envoy to engage in talks," Yang said.

   North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's special envoy Choe Ryong-hae was in Beijing last week and promised to engage in dialogue with interested parties, including over the resumption of the six-party talks. Choe, the director of the General Political Bureau of North Korea's People's Army, met with Chinese President Xi Jinping and delivered Kim's personal message.

   "Pyongyang seems to be aiming to first hold talks with businessmen, followed by working-level governmental talks that can pave the way for other exchanges," Yang speculated.