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(LEAD) S. Korean businessmen visit N. Korea amid Kaesong wage row

All Headlines 11:04 March 18, 2015

(ATTN: CORRECTS delegation's size in lead; UPDATES with unification ministry's briefing in 8th and last 5 paras)

SEOUL, March 18 (Yonhap) -- More than a dozen South Korean businessmen traveled to North Korea's border town of Kaesong on Wednesday as concerns grow over the fate of a joint industrial zone there.

The North has unilaterally decided to raise the minimum wage for its workers at the Kaesong Industrial Complex from US$70.35 to $74 starting in March.

About 120 South Korean firms operating in the complex will begin to pay the March wage for 53,000 North Korean employees on April 10.

The companies, mostly small and medium-sized ones, are sandwiched between the North's pressure and the South Korean government's stern response. The unification ministry warned of legal and administrative punishment against those following Pyongyang's measure.

The South's businessmen said they will deliver their position on the wage problem to the North. They are pushing for a meeting with officials at the North's Central Special Development Guidance Bureau in charge of running the complex.

The 14-member delegation is led by Chung Ki-sup, head of the council of South Korean companies operating in the zone.

The South's government, Chung said, needs to address the North's strong protest against the cross-border spread of anti-Pyongyang leaflets by activists here.

It's one of the biggest obstacles to efforts to resume inter-Korean dialogue, he pointed out.

Park Sang-hak, a North Korean defector campaigning against Pyongyang, said he would organize an event to fly half-a-million leaflets toward the North by the use of helium balloons on March 26.

Also to be sent are thousands of DVDs and USBs containing the copies of "The Interview," a Hollywood comedy that involves a plot to kill the North's leader, Kim Jong-un, he said.

"The problem of the Kaesong Industrial Complex can be resolved easily if the upcoming leaflet scattering is curbed," Chung claimed.

The Park Geun-hye administration maintains that it has no legal ground to forcibly block the leaflet campaign, which is tied to the freedom of speech.

Unification ministry officials have instead advised activists to make a "wise" choice in consideration of worries that their leaflet campaign may jeopardize the safety and security of residents in border areas.

"It's not appropriate to link the leaflet-scattering issue with our response to North Korea's unilateral and unjust demand for a wage hike," ministry spokesman Lim Byeong-cheol said at a press briefing.

He urged the North to accept the South's offer of talks on the wage dispute and other pending issues.

As to the matter of a land use fee for the Kaesong complex, Lim said the government will seek consultations with the North "at a proper time."

Launching the facilities in 2004, the North agreed to exempt the South from a land use fee for a decade.

"Our government is aware that the North is supposed to impose a land use fee from this year," he added.



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