N Korea proposes talks with S Korea

2013-06-06 11:00
South Korean President Park Geun-Hye (File, AP)

South Korean President Park Geun-Hye (File, AP)

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Seoul - North Korea on Thursday proposed talks with South Korea on a wide-range of issues from reopening a shuttered joint industrial complex to resuming cross-border family reunions.

The surprise offer, carried in a statement from the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea (CPRK), followed months of military tensions triggered by the North's nuclear test in February.

The CPRK, the state body responsible for relations with the South, did not specify at what level the talks should take place, but said the venue and date "can be set to the convenience of the South side".

Initial subjects for discussion would be the future of the Kaesong joint industrial zone, which was closed at the height of the recent tensions, and the possible resumption of cross-border tours to the North's Mount Kumgang resort, the CPRK said.

"Such humanitarian issues as the reunion of separated families and their relatives can be discussed at the talks, if necessary," said the statement carried on the official Korean Central News Agency.

If the South responds positively to the proposal, the CPRK said the North would consider rolling back measures it took when relations went into a tailspin, including restoring a cross-border official hotline.

Nuclear weapons programme

"If the South Korean authorities truly stand for building confidence and improving the north-south relations, they should not miss this opportunity," it added.

There was no immediate response from South Korea which has already offered working-level talks to discuss the retrieval of raw materials and finished goods left behind by South Korean factory managers when they left Kaesong.

Seoul is likely to be wary of agreeing to a wide-ranging agenda.

While President Park Geun-Hye has spoken of the need for dialogue on issues like Kaesong, she has made it clear that substantive bilateral talks would be dependent on the North showing a commitment to abandoning its nuclear weapons programme.

Pyongyang, meanwhile, has repeatedly insisted that its nuclear deterrent is not up for negotiation.

The North's dialogue proposal followed Chinese state media reports that North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un had suggested - in a letter last month to Chinese President Xi Jinping - that he would be prepared to resume six-party denuclearisation talks.

'Not an easy issue'

"I think this is an attempt by the North to seize the initiative, but it's premature to say whether the offer is likely to lead to a sincere dialogue with the South," said Yang Moo-Jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.

"Resuming tours to the Kumgang resort, for example, is not an easy issue," Yang said.

The resort, developed by the South's Hyundai Asan company, opened in 1998 as a symbol of reconciliation between the two Koreas. It once earned the impoverished North tens of millions of dollars a year.

But Seoul suspended tours by its citizens after a North Korean soldier shot dead a South Korean housewife in July 2008. In response the North scrapped a deal with Hyundai Asan and seized its properties there.

The Kaesong industrial complex, established inside North Korea in 2004, was the most high-profile casualty of the tensions that followed the North's nuclear test in February.

Born out of the "Sunshine Policy" of inter-Korean conciliation initiated in the late 1990s by South Korean president Kim Dae-Jung, Kaesong was a crucial hard currency source for the impoverished North, through taxes and revenues, and its cut of worker wages.

Operations at the complex ground to a halt after the North pulled all its 53 000 workers out in early April. The South withdrew its managers and officials soon afterwards.

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