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(2nd LD) Seoul offers N. Korea talks on Kaesong issue

All Headlines 19:46 May 14, 2013

(ATTN: UPDATES with comments from S. Korea's political parties in paras 13-16)

SEOUL, May 14 (Yonhap) -- South Korea on Tuesday extended an offer for working-level talks to North Korea on the return of industrial production materials and finished goods from the inter-Korean industrial complex.

The unification ministry said in a statement that talks are needed to alleviate hardships facing local companies forced out of the complex located just north of the demilitarized zone that separates the two countries.

The 123 companies with factories at Kaesong had to halt operations from early April onwards after Pyongyang, citing South Korean provocations, pulled out all of its 53,000 laborers from the joint complex. South Korea countered by recalling all of its citizens, yet raw materials needed to make products and finished goods could not be brought back because the communist country barred entry of new vehicles and personnel.

"Seoul proposed the talks to be held at the Freedom House in the South Korean sector of the truce village of Panmunjom, and urges the North to respond to this latest call at their earliest convenience," ministry spokesman Kim Hyung-suk told reporters.

He said the South will be represented by the head of the inter-Korean cooperation support organization and two others, while the North can send representatives from the General Bureau for the Special Zone Development Guidance in charge of Kaesong.

The official, however, said that talks should be held as soon as possible to respond to calls of mounting damages.

"We urge the North to respond in a favorable manner to the latest proposal," Kim said, pointing out that Seoul has consistently asked the North to come to the negotiating table to deal with ways to normalize operations at the border town that remains the only economic link between the two sides.

The exact size of the damage had not been tallied, but it ranges from 1 trillion won to 3 trillion won, depending on how losses are calculated.

The offer, meanwhile, comes after President Park Geun-hye instructed the unification minister to propose talks with North Korea in order to bring back South Korean materials and finished goods.

"I hope the ministry will propose talks that will allow finished products and raw and subsidiary materials left behind at Kaesong to be returned as early as possible and reduce damage to companies," the chief executive said during a Cabinet meeting.

She also expressed hope that Kaesong will undergo revolutionary changes toward internationalization and not only normalization.

"In order for that to happen, safety devices for the promises North Korea made with the international community should be guaranteed," she said.

South Korea's political parties hailed the proposal for dialogue, though the main opposition party noted the proposed talks should have been aimed at normalizing the Kaesong complex.

Rep. Kim Kwan-young, a spokesman for the main opposition Democratic Party, said the government proposal for talks should have come much earlier "to protect the assets of companies in Kaesong."

"It is still very regrettable that the main agenda of the talks is not the normalization of the Kaesong Industrial Complex, but rather follow-up steps for the shutdown of the complex," he told a press conference.

The ruling Saenuri Party, however, claimed the government's proposal reflected its willingness to reopen the joint industrial complex, urging Pyongyang to promptly respond to Seoul's offer for dialogue.

Related to the third formal call for dialogue, North Korea watchers in Seoul predicted that the North may not heed the calls for dialogue.

President Park initially called for talks on April 11, and Seoul again requested official working level dialogue two weeks later, both of which were turned down.

"The proposal does not mention any of the requests made by the North and only touches on issues that concern the South," said Chang Yong-seok, senior researcher at the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University.

He said that while Pyongyang as a whole may reject the request, organizations charged with managing Kaesong may want to accept.

"Some in the North may be thinking hard on the matter," he claimed.

Others said that the North seems to be using Kaesong as a tool to engage the United States in talks, and may view its importance to South Korean companies as not being critical to its national interests.

Related to helping Kaesong companies, Seoul said it will offer extensive funding support as well as other assistance in the form of employment, the re-training of workers, and the waiving of social welfare insurance payments.

yonngong@yna.co.kr
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