*** INTER-KOREAN RELATIONS
Koreas Fail to Agree on More Family Reunions, North Requests Aid
SEOUL (Yonhap) -- The two Koreas on Oct. 16 ended their day-long negotiations over further cross-border family reunions and other humanitarian issues without reaching any concrete agreement, with Pyongyang asking for resumption of aid by Seoul, officials said.
In the meeting arranged by Red Cross offices from both sides, South Korea proposed holding new rounds of reunions for families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War next month in both Seoul and Pyongyang, and again around February at the North's Mt. Kumgang resort.
The most recent round of family reunions, held in late September at Mt. Kumgang, was the first in nearly two years. Pyongyang has yet to promise to regularize the humanitarian event.
Ordinary Koreans cannot exchange phone calls, letters or email across the border.
The one-day working-level meeting in Kaesong, just north of the shared border, started around 10 a.m. and ended close to 6:30 p.m., with a number of recesses in between, officials at the Unification Ministry said.
"The two Koreas have not reached a concrete agreement (on Seoul's proposals) due to differences in their respective stances," Kim Eyi-do, the ministry's senior policy cooperation officer, who served as South Korea's chief negotiator, said at a press briefing after returning to Seoul. The two sides promised to consult each other on future Red Cross talks, he said.
"The North asked for humanitarian aid from the South. We told them that we will review it after returning (to the South)," Kim said.
The North's officials did not make clear how much or what kind of aid their government wants from Seoul, according to Kim.
The request was not made as a direct precondition for future talks, Kim said, adding that it "seemed to be in line" with similar remarks made by Jang Jae-on, the North's Red Cross chief, during last month's reunions.
Jang had asked his South Korean counterpart, Yoo Chong-ha, whether the South was willing to extend a "goodwill" measure toward the North in response to resuming the reunions, which was largely seen as a question linked to humanitarian aid.
The Lee Myung-bak government has stopped providing massive food aid to North Korea since there was no request from Pyongyang amid political tensions between the two governments. Over the past decade, Lee's liberal predecessors shipped 400,000 tons of rice and 300,000 tons of fertilizer to North Korea annually, despite the regime's nuclear activities. Relations deteriorated as Lee, a conservative president who took office early last year, linked inter-Korean relations to progress in the North's nuclear disarmament.
The World Food Program has said North Korea will need more than 800,000 tons of food aid from abroad to feed its 24 million people this year.
Another Unification Ministry official said that while Seoul will review Pyongyang's request because it does provide a certain amount of unconditional humanitarian aid to the North in principle, a decision to give massive assistance would require deliberation and consultations among various government bodies.
The South Korean delegation also raised the issue of South Korean prisoners of war (POWs) from the Korean War and civilian abductees, urging the North to discuss with Seoul a "fundamental solution" for families of POWs.
The meeting was held following the North's test-firing of short-range missiles and warnings of a naval clash in the Yellow Sea earlier this week. This "two-track" diplomacy came as the communist country, currently under U.N. sanctions over its nuclear and missile tests in spring, was pushing the South to resume profitable tourism projects and humanitarian aid.
In a rare gesture to patch up frayed ties with the South, North Korea apologized Oct. 14 for the deaths of six South Koreans who were swept away by a flash flood after the North abruptly opened a dam last month.
Experts believe the two sides came to the meeting knowing what to expect. The unusual speed at which the series of inter-Korean dialogue was arranged this week suggests there were prior consultations. Seoul on Oct. 19 proposed two sets of meetings, one between the Red Cross and the other for discussing flood control. Pyongyang accepted both of them the following day.
Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said the Lee administration needs an official aid request from North Korea because of its earlier public commitment to not follow the path of the previous liberal governments that provided unconditional aid while the North continued to develop nuclear weapons.
For the North, patching up ties with Seoul is imperative in improving relations with the United States, a key to rebuilding its frail economy, Yang said.
But Seoul is unlikely to keep pace with Pyongyang, given its policy priority on the North's denuclearization, he said.
"South Korea has been at the forefront of the nations implementing the punitive U.N. sanctions against North Korea. South Korea will not give any large-scale aid, other than a ton or two of corn," he predicted.
Inter-Korean Trade Grows 2.6 Percent in September
SEOUL (Yonhap) -- Inter-Korean trade grew for the first time in 13 months in September amid improving global economic conditions and eased cross-border tensions, customs data showed on Oct. 19.
According to data compiled by the Korea Customs Service, trade between South and North Korea amounted to US$173.17 million last month, up 2.6 percent from a year earlier when the global financial turbulence first began following the collapse of Lehman Brothers.
Shipments to the North totaled $74.47 million, while those from the communist country came to $98.70 million, the data showed.
The figure marks the first increase in inter-Korean trade since it turned negative in September last year. The decline in trade had been attributed mostly to the global recession and strained inter-Korean relations after the North pushed ahead with its second nuclear test in May in defiance of warnings by the international community.
Experts predict that trade between the two Koreas will remain strong down the road amid rebounding global economic conditions and eased cross-border relations, including recently held reunions of families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War.
The warming mood was also a boon to a joint factory park in Kaesong, just north of the inter-Korean border, where 115 South Korean firms operate with North Korean workers. Its monthly output rose slightly to $20.96 million in August, up 1.8 percent from the previous month, with strong performances by machinery and electronics manufacturers, and increased orders from Chinese and Australian buyers, the Unification Ministry said.
The number of North Korean workers at the complex increased to 39,933, up 429 from July, it said.
Seoul to Send More Humanitarian Aid to N. Korea: Officials
SEOUL (Yonhap) -- South Korea is considering contributing hundreds of millions of won to private organizations to assist their humanitarian aid projects in North Korea, a government source in Seoul said on Oct. 19.
The Seoul government will this week finalize its plan to donate the funds, which are expected to go to health and medical aid projects for the North operated by local non-governmental organizations, said the source, adding the total amount will not exceed 1 billion won (US$850,000).
The South Korean government suspended shipments of rice and fertilizer to the North after conservative President Lee Myung-bak took office early last year, though it maintained cross-border humanitarian aid.
In August, the South provided 3.5 billion won to private aid groups, who in turn used the money for such projects as caring for infants suffering from malnutrition in the North.
Chun Hae-sung, spokesman for Seoul's Unification Ministry, confirmed that the government was currently planning to provide funds to private groups but said a final decision on the move has yet to be made.
Last week, North Korea requested humanitarian aid from Seoul during Red Cross talks over inter-Korean family reunions, its first official call for aid after the inauguration of Lee.
Pyongyang did not specify what kind of humanitarian aid it was seeking, while Seoul responded that it would review the request.
The government's decision on providing funds to private aid groups will be made separately from the North's recent request, Chun said, adding that Seoul will begin reviewing Pyongyang's call for aid this week.
S. Korea to Provide N. Korea with Cross-border Communication Equipment
SEOUL (Yonhap) -- Seoul plans to provide North Korea with optical cables and other equipment worth 2 billion won (US$1.7 million) to modernize an inter-Korean military communication line, the Unification Ministry in Seoul said on Oct. 21.
Ministry spokesperson Lee Jong-joo said the two Koreas agreed to upgrade their military line, running across the border along the East Sea, which has been malfunctioning.
"We encountered much difficulty in communications due to the worn-out equipment, experiencing some 30 cases of miscommunication just last month," Lee said at a press briefing.
Seoul will provide the needed equipment to the North, and both sides will begin equipment maintenance and upgrades at their respective sides starting Oct. 28, Lee said. The upgrades are expected to take about one to two months, she said.
The military line near the East Sea is the main communication channel used in exchanging lists of people who travel in and out of the Kaesong industrial complex in the North and others who travel across the border by land.
"The two Koreas will respectively carry out the line upgrades at their sides and later connect them at the military demarcation line. We should be able to complete the operation before the severe cold approaches," Lee said.
The two Koreas had reached a tentative agreement to upgrade the communication line in 2007, but the project was deferred after their relations soured following the inauguration of Seoul's conservative administration last year.
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