SEOUL: North Korea today agreed to hold talks with South Korea next week, Seoul officials said, amid high tensions between the two nations. The North has accepted a proposal for working-level talks on June 11 at the Kaesong joint industrial complex just north of the border, according to South Korea’s unification ministry.
South Korean and US troops have gone on heightened alert since the North staged a nuclear test in late May, renounced the armistice that ended the Korean war in the 1950s and threatened the South with possible attack.
South Korean officials say they fear the North will stage a border provocation on land or at sea. Next week’s talks will focus on operations at Kaesong.
The two sides held their first government-level talks in more than a year on April 21. The North demanded pay rises for its workers and land-use fees at the Seoul-funded estate.
Seoul said the fate of a South Korean manager at Kaesong who has been detained since March 30 must be settled before any other negotiations. Pyongyang alleges the man criticised its communist system and tried to persuade a local worker to defect.
Last month the North announced it had scrapped all wage and rent agreements in force at the estate. It told the 101 South Korean companies to pack up and leave if they cannot accept the new terms. The announcement cast doubt on the future of the estate, opened in December 2004 as a symbol of reconciliation but frequently hit by political tensions.
The Seoul government and South Korean businesses have invested $548 million into the venture since construction began in 2002. Kim Yong-Hyun, professor of North Korea studies at Seoul’s Dongguk University, said the agreement to hold talks “should not be seen as a sign that North Korea is willing to ease its stance on relations with South Korea.” Kim told AFP it was expected to make specific proposals on wage rises and other matters next week. “It may deliver proposals unilaterally and shun talks on the detainee,” he said.
The North would keep inter-Korean relations strained while seeking dialogue with the United States, Kim said, possibly by using two detained US journalists as bargaining chips. The women went on trial Thursday in Pyongyang but there has been no word on their fate.
More than 38,000 North Koreans work at South Korean firms at Kaesong, producing items such as garments, kitchenware
and watches.