SKorea proposes inter-Korean talks

SEOUL: South Korea Friday proposed inter-Korean talks next week to discuss the release of a worker detained by North Korea, officials said.

The new proposal came after Seoul's earlier suggestion for a meeting this week was rejected by Pyongyang amid differences over the agenda, the unification ministry said.

"We hope the North will respond positively to this proposal," spokesman Kim Ho-Nyoun told reporters.

Seoul had wanted to hold a second round of talks on Friday in a bid to persuade the North to free the man detained since March 30 at the Seoul-funded industrial estate in Kaesong, just north of the border.

The two Koreas held their first government-level talks in more than a year on April 21 at which the North demanded pay rises for its workers and land-use fees for the estate.

But the talks ended without agreement over the issue of the South Korean employee and a second round of meetings has not yet taken place.

The North has accused the worker of slandering its political system "malignantly" and hinted he could face severe punishment.

South Korea has said the detention jeopardises the estate's future.

"There is no change in our position that the safety of workers is important in running the Kaesong industrial complex," Kim said.

Cross-border ties have deteriorated since a conservative government took office in Seoul in February 2008 and vowed to link major economic aid to the North's progress in nuclear disarmament.

The communist state has also been holding two US female journalists since detaining them March 17 along the narrow Tumen River marking the border with China. It has said they will stand trial on June 4.

The estate was built as a symbol of reconciliation between the two countries, which have remained technically at war since their 1950-1953 conflict.

But operations have often been hit by political tensions.

More than 38,000 North Koreans work at 101 South Korean firms on the estate, producing items such as garments, kitchenware and watches.

They are each paid around 75 dollars a month, including insurance, but the money goes directly to the North's state bodies, which return a portion to the workers.