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(4th LD) Koreas to hold joint int'l survey for Kaesong park

All Headlines 18:13 November 26, 2009

(ATTN: CLARIFIES N. Korean wage at bottom, ADDS annual output of Kaesong park)
By Kim Hyun

SEOUL, Nov. 26 (Yonhap) -- South and North Korea will send a joint survey team to China and Vietnam next month to try to find an international model that can help develop their shared factory park, Seoul's Unification Ministry said Thursday.

The joint trip, set for mid-December, may be a sign that the North intends to continue its conciliatory diplomacy toward South Korea despite recently unleashing a spate of harsh criticism against the Seoul administration.

"Our government expects this joint survey will contribute to forming an inter-Korean consensus for developing the Kaesong industrial park," ministry spokesman Chun Hae-sung said in a press briefing.

North Korea recently agreed to hold the 10-day international survey, which was proposed by the South in June after payment disputes arose over the joint park in the North Korean border town of Kaesong, Chun said.

The joint trip would be a watershed for the Kaesong park, whose fate hung by a thread amid deteriorating inter-Korean relations earlier this year. South Korean firms operating there had considered pulling out after the North sealed cross-border traffic several times and detained a South Korean worker, in what appeared to be a protest against the conservative Seoul government.

North Korea shifted to a more conciliatory stance in August, reaching out to Seoul and Washington for dialogue and lifting restrictions on inter-Korean business ventures.

But North Korean media recently resumed their vitriolic criticism of Seoul, pointing to its prolonged suspension of a lucrative North Korean mountain tour and its participation in a U.N. resolution condemning the North's human rights condition. The North called South Korean Unification Minister Hyun In-taek, who is in charge of inter-Korean relations, a "traitor" impeding cross-border relations.

A senior unification ministry official said that despite the North's harsh rhetoric inter-Korean dialogue is quietly taking place out of public view.

"Some may think our government's stance is too hard-line. For example, they may say, 'Why are there so many conditions when North Korea wants to resume the Mount Kumgang tour?'" the official told reporters in a background briefing. "But that is not the only aspect of current inter-Korean relations. Dialogue is going well, and there are various currents going on in inter-Korean relations."

Businesses operating in Kaesong welcomed the joint survey, expecting it will help build mutual trust and make the inter-Korean venture internationally competitive.

"North Korean officials don't go overseas very much, so they don't know how well-equipped the Kaesong park is by international standards," said Ok Sung-seok, chief of apparel maker Nine Mode Co.

"They demand more, but in my view, there's no other place as good as the Kaesong park."

Yoo Chang-geun, chairman of the Kaesong Business Council that represents firms operating at the park, said he has seen North Korean officials' attitudes positively change toward South Korean investors.

"They used to behave in a unilateral way, but these days they seem to be trying to listen to what we need," Yoo, whose SJ Tech Co. operates with about 430 North Korean workers in Kaesong, said. "They seem to be getting an understanding about capitalism. Before, we thought they were trying to take advantage of us. But simply, they really didn't know."

North Korea earlier complained of low wages and land fees paid by South Korean firms at the joint park, which opened in 2004. Several rounds of unsuccessful negotiations ensued, with North demanding a four-fold increase in the monthly wage for North Korean workers to US$300.

The ministry said South and North Korea will team up with about 10 people on each side for the survey. The inspectors will look into incentives for foreign investors, customs process and other systems at industrial parks in China and Vietnam that can be used as barometers for the Kaesong venture, it said.

Seoul hopes to continue joint surveys in Central Asia, the United States and other advanced countries.

The Koreas made a similar trip before relations chilled in 2007, during which seven officials from both sides toured industrial facilities in China and Vietnam.

The joint park, a major result of the historic first inter-Korean summit in 2000, currently hosts 116 South Korean firms employing more than 40,800 North Koreans. Factories there produce mostly labor-intensive goods such as electronics, clothing and kitchenware.

The average monthly wage for a North Korean worker there is about $80. The venture's total output last year was $251 million.

hkim@yna.co.kr
(END)

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