Seoul offers low-level talks on normalization of industrial park

SEOUL, July 4 (Yonhap) -- South Korea on Thursday proposed working-level talks with North Korea on the normalization of the suspended inter-Korean industrial complex in the communist country.

The Kaesong Industrial Complex has been shut down since early April, when the North pulled all its workers from South Korean companies there amid heightened tensions on the peninsula.

Ministry of Unification spokesman Kim Hyung-suk said in a briefing that Seoul has proposed talks to be held at the truce village of Panmunjom on Saturday.

"Seoul's stance remains consistent and centers on government authorities resolving all outstanding issues related to Kaesong through dialogue," the official said. The South had insisted on meetings between government authorities to handle cross-border issues, while the North favors contacts with businesses and private organizations as a way to resolve differences.

The spokesman added that Seoul is calling for swift talks so as to reflect the difficulties encountered by companies with factories at the border town.

The official said the other agendas that had been brought forth by the North in the past can be discussed at the negotiating table. Prior to the aborted senior-level talks in June, Pyongyang said it wanted to touch on the resumption of Mount Kumgang tours and to host family reunions for people separated by the Korean War (1950-53).

Seoul's announcement, calling for talks between lower-ranking, frontline officials, was forwarded to the North's General Bureau for the Special Zone Development Guidance via the communication channel at Panmunjom earlier in the day. It came less than a day after Pyongyang said it will allow businessmen and members of the Kaesong Industrial District Management Committee to inspect production facilities at Kaesong.

The communist country said that if the South sends word on when the visit will take place, it will implement necessary measures to ensure safe passage through the demilitarized zone that separates the two Koreas.

On the issue of allowing businessmen to visit Kaesong, Kim stressed that such matters can also be discussed at the working-level meeting, though he did not say if the latest proposal can be viewed as Seoul's rejection of the North's latest invitation. He, however, declined to elaborate on what Seoul will do about businessmen going to the North if the upcoming talks fail to make progress.

"What is important is not South Korean businessmen just going to Kaesong, but the need to resolve such broader issues as checking of manufacturing facilities, allowing the return of finished goods and production materials, and ways to ensure stable development of the complex," the spokesman said. He said the South will send three officials to the talks with a director-level official as the chief delegate.

The North's invitation, meanwhile, came after members of the Kaesong Industrial Complex Companies Association said they want to relocate machinery equipment from the border town complex.

Work at the inter-Korean factory complex came to a halt on April 9, when the North ordered its 53,000 laborers hired by 123 South Korean companies not to report for work, citing provocations from the South. In response, the South pulled the last of its personnel from the complex on May 3.

Related to the North's invitation and the South's counter-proposal, a government insider said that the South is sticking to its principle of trying to find a "fundamental solution" to the Kaesong issue, and set up safeguards to prevent a reoccurrence of unilateral action to block work disruptions in the future.

"If we permit businessmen to go first to Kaesong at this juncture, there is a chance that things will just return to a state before the North took steps to block normal operations," an official said. The source, who did not wished to be identified, said the return to the old status quo is not acceptable.

On the latest government's decision to hold talks first, Kaesong companies said they supported the move, urging both sides to permit the visit by businessmen.

Han Jae-kwon, who represents the emergency committee for companies, however said in a news conference that representatives would like to travel to the industrial park next Tuesday so they can check facilities that could be damaged by monsoon rains.

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