Koreas kick off 7th round of talks on Kaesong park normalization

SEOUL, Aug. 14 (Yonhap) -- South and North Korea resumed talks Wednesday aimed at restarting operations at a joint factory park in the communist country that has been shut down for more than four months.

Working-level officials from both sides met six times last month, but no breakthrough has been made mainly due to disagreements on which country is responsible for the current suspension and safeguards to prevent another work stoppage at the Kaesong Industrial Complex.

From the outset of negotiations, each side blamed the other for the suspension of operations with Seoul demanding Pyongyang provide firm guarantees that it will not unilaterally close down the factory park as it did in early April. Pyongyang has consistently skirted responsibility for the closure and has been reluctant to give the kind of guarantee called for by the South, although it has shown a willingness to actively engage in negotiations and has been open to the issue of "internationalizing" the Kaesong park.

At present only 123 South Korean businesses have factories at the complex, considered the last remaining symbol of inter-Korean rapprochement and located just north of the demilitarized zone (DMZ).

The Ministry of Unification, which handles cross-border relations, made it clear that its negotiators will not accept "vague" guarantees and emphasized the critical nature of the North to not use non-economic developments to disrupt Kaesong operations in the future.

Pyongyang cited political and military provocations for pulling out all of its workers from the complex.

"The fact that the two sides have sat down for the seventh time shows the difficulties involved in the negotiations, but if both sides concur on the need for 'progressive development' of the Kaesong complex and work together, all problems and difficulties can be overcome," South Korea's chief delegate Kim Ki-woong said at the start of the meeting at 10 a.m.

He said earlier in the day as he left for the meeting that the government will enter into negotiations with the goal of meeting the expectations of the people.

In response, Kim's North Korean counterpart, Park Chol-su, said that if the South actively engages in negotiations, positive results can be reached ahead of the Aug. 15 Liberation Day. The date is a holiday in both Koreas and marks the country's liberation from Japanese colonial rule (1910-45).

The latest round of talks, meanwhile, is expected to be a turning point in the future of Kaesong, with many expecting tough negotiations.

Official sources said that besides safeguards, the two sides remain divided on when to reopen the complex. Seoul said that agreement on safeguards must be followed by legal and administrative changes to running of the complex that requires further negotiations. Such a process can cause a delay in the opening of the park.

The North said that once an agreement is reached on reopening Kaesong, factories must be allowed to start production immediately.

North Korean watchers said that a breakthrough in negotiations can lay the foundation for the "progressive development" of the joint factory park, while another failure can lead to the closure of the complex.

Seoul already agreed to provide 280.9 billion won (US$250.9 million) in insurance payment to the companies with factories and assets in the Kaesong complex. It said five companies are in the process of receiving the insurance money with others waiting to see the outcome of the latest talks.

Once payment is made, the government can exercise ownership of assets in Kaesong that many here believe can give it more leeway to close the park if it feels no progress is likely.

Other observers said that headway is critical at the talks because South Korea and the United States will launch the joint Ulchi Freedom Guardian (UGF) military exercise on Monday. The drill that runs through Aug. 30 is expected to halt cross-border talks since Pyongyang sees such maneuvers as a dress rehearsal for invasion.

Reflecting the importance of the talks to Pyongyang, the Rodong Sinmun, an organ of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea (WPK), said in a article that improved cross-border relations is the precondition for the eventual unification of the country.

"Now is not the time to escalate tensions but ease tensions so a future can be planned for all Koreans," the daily said. "Better relations serve the interest of all sides and that top priority must be placed on seeking to maximize gains for the Korean people."

North Korean media outlets in recent days have stressed the need for improved relations across the DMZ and generally did not mention the UFG exercise.

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