S Korea-Kaesong talks

SEOUL, May 21 (Yonhap) -- South Korea urged North Korea Tuesday to accept working-level talks that could help normalize operations of a suspended inter-Korean industrial complex in Kaesong and alleviate local companies that are suffering due to the suspension.

The Kaesong Industrial Complex has been shut down since early April when Pyongyang withdrew all of its workers from the 123 South Korean companies there, citing the South's provocations against the communist country.

"To build trust related to the Kaesong Industrial Complex, there needs to be an effort to allow the local companies to retrieve production materials and finished goods which requires working-level talks," Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Hyung-suk said at a press briefing.

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

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.

Kim pointed out, however, that the communist nation has sent fax messages to several 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.

He said that despite Seoul's view that the North's demands for removing "fundamental problems" to the Kaesong issue cannot 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.

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.

On the issue of the 243 South Korean entrepreneurs wanting to visit Kaesong, the spokesman said for the trip to take place, the North must give assurances for their safety, and talks are needed to facilitate their passage over the demilitarized zone.

"Such a process requires working-level talks to take place," he stressed.

The entrepreneurs said they want to visit Kaesong on Thursday to inspect the facilities that were left behind. They may seek to talk to North Korean officials to get them to rescind measures that barred entry into the border town.

Of the companies forced out of Kaesong, 45 received special low interest loans from the inter-Korean cooperation fund totaling 34.2 billion won (US$30.7 million). It said 64 companies filed detailed reports of losses incurred so far.

Kim then reiterated that the recent string of missile launches by the North can only be deemed as being a provocation because such weapons pose a direct threat to South Korea. Pyongyang said the firing of missiles is part of a military exercise to enhance its deterrence capabilities.

"The North needs to show the world that it is willing to build trust," he said.

The official, moreover, said that Seoul regrets actions taken by the North to open Mount Kumgang to foreign tourists.

The spokesman said that the move by the North to use a Singapore-owned cruise ship to ferry tourists to the location is in violation of previous agreements with South Korean developers. All tours to the mountain were called off in July 2008, after a North Korean guard shot and killed a South Korean female tourist.

Meanwhile, lawmakers from the main opposition Democratic Party visited Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae to discuss what actions Seoul can take to end the present standoff.

During the talks, Rep. Jung Cheong-rae said that South Korea should make proposals that can persuade Pyongyang to come to the negotiating table.

"Matters of interest to the North, like higher wages for its workers and lack of transparency related to reported earnings by South Korean companies can be proposed as incentives," he said.

Rep. Choo Mi-ae, on the other hand, stressed that Seoul should approach Kaesong in the original spirit of separating politics from economics.

She said that if both sides make headway on Kaesong, this could lead to trust-building, which is the cornerstone of President Park Geun-hye's inter-Korean policy.

Others, such as Hong Ihk-pyo, called on Seoul to exercise more flexibility and to not stick to its calls to solely engage the North through working level government talks.

The lawmaker claimed that it was because of Seoul's insistence on government-to-government talks that no headway was made to resolve the Mount Kumgang impasse.

He also 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. The same message was received by a government official, although he too was informed of the suggestion by a third party source, who did not wish to be identified.

The lawmaker claimed Seoul got the same message but rejected it.

On this rumor, the unification ministry refuted the lawmaker's remarks and said though one of its official's received a similar message to Hong, the proposal came through a third party source and there is no way to know if the North Korean Economic 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," a 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.

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