(ATTN: UPDATES with more details, comments in paras 4, 11-16)
SEOUL, Sept. 13 (Yonhap) -- South and North Korea kicked off negotiations Friday on ironing out deals to better protect South Korean workers and updating communications at their joint factory park in the communist country.
Working-level panel discussions will touch on issues that were not covered by agreement earlier this week to reopen on coming Monday the Kaesong Industrial Complex, effectively ending the standoff over the inter-Korean factory zone.
Operations at Kaesong came to a halt in early April when Pyongyang unilaterally pulled out all of its workers. The North cited political and military provocations for its actions, but it has since pledged not to take any action to close down the factory park in the future.
Seoul's Ministry of Unification said the two sub-committee meetings will focus on enhancing communications and travel, as well as rights governing South Koreans who stay in the North for extended periods of time.
Seoul has said it placed considerable emphasis on protecting its nationals in case of a criminal proceeding. If any South Korean national is detained by North Korean authorities for any reason including a criminal offense in Kaesong, he or she should have access to a proper legal counsel, South Korea has said.
If Pyongyang agrees, this can allow South Korean officials to be present when the suspect is being questioned by North Korean authorities.
South Korea said accepting the terms for the right to legal counsel is part of the so-called progressive-development process that Seoul seeks for the Kaesong factory zone. Progressive development aims to lay a firm foundation for building trust and sustainable growth in cross-border relations.
Besides workers' rights, the two sides plan to touch on technical details related to improving communications between Kaesong and rest of South Korea. This involves permitting Internet connectivity at Kaesong.
Negotiators are also likely to discuss follow-up measures for using radio frequency identification (RFID) tags to ease cross-border movement, which was already agreed upon on Wednesday.
The ministry claimed that technicians asserted that RFID and Internet access issues can be resolved within this year, although it may take a bit longer to handle the issue surrounding the mobile phone use.
"If headway is made, affiliated agreements can be signed when the newly created joint management committee in charge of running the complex meets next Monday," said ministry spokesman Kim Hyung-suk.
He said that as part of the reopening process Korea Electric Power Corp. (KEPCO) has increased electricity that can being supplied to Kaesong from the current 20,000 kilowatts to 100,000 kilowatts.
The official, however, said that it is not certain how many South Korean companies will opt to start production next week since these companies need to secure orders from buyers and may need more time to get their factories in order. Kim said starting Monday businesses can keep their workers overnight at Kaesong.
At present only officials from the Kaesong Industrial District Management Committee, the Kaesong Industrial District Management Committee, KT and Korea Water Resources Corp. have been permitted to stay at the border town.
On the 46 local companies that have received a total of 148.5 billion won (US$136.8 million) worth of insurance payments in the past few weeks when it seemed likely that the complex would be closed indefinitely, the official said these businesses must first pay back the money they received before they can restart operations. Seoul had originally authorized payment of 280.9 billion won to 109 companies after the factory park was shut down.
"The insurance payments came from taxpayers pockets so this matter needs to be resolved first," he said. Upon receiving the money companies gave up control of their facilities at Kaesong to the government.
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