North and South Korea held rare talks yesterday on re-opening a joint industrial zone seen as the last remaining symbol of cross-border reconciliation.
However, the meeting showed early signs of faltering, with two sides talking across each other over what to discuss first.
The talks — delayed by nearly two hours — follow months of friction and threats of war by Pyongyang after its February nuclear test attracted tougher UN sanctions, further squeezing its struggling economy.
Kaesong was the most high-profile casualty of the elevated tensions on the Korean peninsula, but neither side has declared the complex officially closed, instead referring to a temporary shutdown.
Both nations say they want to reopen the Seoul-funded industrial zone on the North Korean side of the border, but blame each other for its suspension.
“There are a multitude of issues to discuss, but the issue of preventing damage to facilities from monsoon rains should take precedence,” the North’s chief delegate Pak Chol-su was quoted as saying at the start of the meeting by a press pool report.
His South Korean counterpart and senior Unification Ministry official, Suh Ho, said: “We’ve come here with a heavy heart as the Kaesong industrial zone has been shuttered down. I hope we settle the issue through mutual trust and cooperation.”
Pyongyang, citing military tensions and the South’s hostility toward the North, in April withdrew its 53,000 workers from the 123 Seoul-owned factories at the Kaesong park.
Until then the industrial park — a valuable source of hard currency for the impoverished North — had proved remarkably resilient to the regular upheavals in inter-Korean relations.
At yesterday’s talks, the South reproached the the North for suspending the operation of Kaesong unilaterally, calling for a clear-cut guarantee aimed at preventing a recurrence, a Unification Ministry official told journalists.
The official added that Seoul had urged the North to take responsibility for losses suffered by South Korean firms there, a Unification Ministry official told journalists.
The North, however, will likely find it hard to accept such a demand as it would amount to Pyongyang accepting full responsibility for the suspension.
The South suggested the meeting should first deal with the issue of moving finished products and raw materials held up at Kaesong to the South, but the North called for the reopening of the zone at the earliest possible date without preconditions.
It suggested that the talks should urgently address the issue of checking on facilities and preventing them from being further damaged by monsoon rains.
South Korean officials earlier said the South would not agree to restarting Kaesong “as if nothing had happened” and thus let the North get away with taking unilateral action.
At an access road to Panmunjom, Suh encountered a group of businessmen with plants in Kaesong. They carried banners expressing hope that the talks would be successful. One read: “We want to work again. Restart Kaesong.”
The meeting comes after a surprise move on Wednesday from North Korea, which restored a cross-border hotline and promised to let South Korean businessmen visit the estate and check on their closed factories.
Representatives of the South Korean companies in the zone have repeatedly urged the two sides to open talks to revive the moribund industrial park. The South wants its businessmen to be able to bring back finished goods and raw materials.
However, some firms have threatened to withdraw from Kaesong, complaining they have fallen victim to political bickering.
After repeatedly threatening Seoul and Washington with conventional and nuclear attack, Pyongyang has appeared in recent weeks to want to move toward dialogue.
Analysts say North Korea is mindful of a US demand that it improve ties with Seoul before there can be any talks with Washington.
After plans for high-level talks last month on the future of the Kaesong estate collapsed over a protocol dispute, Pyongyang proposed direct, high-level dialogue with the US.