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S. Korea makes last offer for Kaesong talks

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

SEOUL, July 29 (Yonhap) -- South Korea on Monday sent an official message to North Korea offering "final talks" to discuss the normalization of a suspended inter-Korean industrial complex in the North's border town of Kaesong.

The Ministry of Unification, which handles cross-border relations, said the message was sent via the communication line at the neutral border village of Panmunjom and was received by North Korea. It said no date or location for the talks were proposed.

"The message calls on the North to respond promptly to the talks proposal," the ministry said.

The move follows the proposal made on Sunday by Seoul's Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae, who called for a meeting to iron out outstanding differences that were not resolved during the previous six rounds of negotiations held throughout the month.

The minister said if the North fails to give a clear response on the safeguard issue, Seoul will be left with no other choice but to make a "grave" decision. The official did not elaborate on what actual measures can be taken but it may entail the closure of the complex, the last remaining symbol of rapprochement between the two Koreas.

The Kaesong Industrial Complex that first started churning out products in late 2004 has remained shuttered since early April after the North unilaterally withdrew its workers from the 123 South Korean companies operating there amid heightened tensions on the peninsula. The North cited provocations by the South including insults against the dignity of its leadership and military drills.

Talks effectively broke down on Thursday with Pyongyang warning that its military can take control of the industrial park located just north of the demilitarized zone that separates the two countries.

The two sides have made little significant headway to reopen the factory zone due to preconditions for resuming operations there. Seoul has steadfastly demanded safeguards to prevent another recurrence of a unilateral shutdown, while Pyongyang has insisted on the park's immediate resumption and skirted blame for the current stoppage that is estimated to have resulted in losses up to 1.05 trillion won (US$946 million) to South Korean firms.

Related to the message, ministry spokesman Kim Hyung-suk told reporters earlier in the day that Seoul's position remains firm that the North must take actions to permit for "constructive development" of the Kaesong park to transform it into a globally competitive manufacturing center.

"Seoul's stance is that the North must make clear it will not restrict movement in and out of the complex or unilaterally pull out workers as it did in the past," he said.

The official said that the government is waiting for the "right response" by the North.

Kim added that actions to allow five civic groups to provide humanitarian aid to the North are progressing according to schedule.

North Korea watchers in Seoul, meanwhile, said that they are carefully watching what action the North will take.

"Because the North rejected demands for safeguards last week, it may again reject the 'final proposal' outright in which case Seoul can take the next step that may result in the eventual closure," said a researcher at a state-run think tank. Such a move can have far-reaching consequences for inter-Korean relations, and the government in Seoul has so far been reluctant to confirm if it will close the complex.

On the other hand, the expert, who wanted to remain anonymous, said the North may offer a counterproposal that would compel the South to make a decision.

"The two Koreas have been making proposals and counterproposals for the past few month to gain the upper hand in talks and make it look like it is the champion of the dialogue, so it is possible the North will take this step," he said.

Observers have said because of the fallout, neither side wants to make the first step to pull out of the joint venture, which was the result of the historic inter-Korean summit meeting in 2000.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/yonhap-news-agency/130729/s-korea-makes-last-offer-kaesong-talks