Koreas lock horns over humanitarian projects, economic issues


South Korea’s five-member negotiating team to the ongoing ministerial talks on Thursday paid a courtesy call on Kim Yong-nam, the North’s ceremonial head of state, as the talks went into a third day in Pyongyang.

Lee Jae-joung, South Korea’s point man on North Korea, became the third unification minister to meet Kim, president of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, and Lee is to hold a press briefing to explain what they discussed later Thursday, pool reports said. The meeting was hurriedly arranged at the request of the South on Thursday morning.

At the Mansudae Assembly Hall, the North’s No. 2 leader received the South Korean delegation, which consists of Lee, Vice Finance Minister Chin Dong-soo, Vice Culture Minister Park Yang-woo, Lee Kwan-se, the assistant unification minister, and Yoo Hyung-ho, a senior official of the National Intelligence Service.

The meeting came as officials from the divided Koreas were engaged in negotiations on how to resume aid and family reunion events and other topics at their first high-level talks in seven months.

They had lunch together at the renovated Okryukwan, a North Korean restaurant famous for its cold noodle soup. After their one-hour meeting with the North’s titular head of state, the South Korean delegation will visit the North’s national orchestra, the reports said.

Earlier in the day, the South Koreans held a simple 10-minute ceremony to mark the 88th anniversary of the March 1 Independence Movement at the Koryo Hotel. As a gesture of goodwill, the North provided a birthday breakfast for Lee, who turned 63 on Thursday.

The two sides had no official schedule for negotiations for the day, but top negotiators and working-level officials held talks to discuss the topics proposed during a plenary session on Wednesday.

The South gave top priority to resuming face-to-face family reunion events in April and construction of a family reunion center at the Mount Geumgang resort as soon as possible, while the North called for holding economic talks this month and pressed for the South’s resumption of rice and fertilizer aid, the reports said.

“The North raised the issue of humanitarian aid during working-level officials’ meeting on Wednesday. But no direct mention on rice and fertilizer aid was made in a draft joint statement,” a South Korean official said, asking to remain anonymous.

North Korea has proposed to resume inter-Korean humanitarian projects on a full scale immediately, and also offered to hold a meeting to discuss ways of boosting economic ties sometime in March in Pyongyang.

The details for reopening reunion events for families separated by the border are likely to be worked out easily, but Seoul’s rice aid to North Korea might surface as a bone of contention, according to analysts. South Korea also holds the position it prefers to hold the the economic talks in April.

The South hopes to reopen the economic talks next month so as to use rice aid as leverage to make the North take quick steps in complying with a recent agreement over its nuclear disarmament in return for energy aid.

“Unlike previous ministerial talks, these involve the dual tracks of inter-Korean relations and the six-party talks, so difficult negotiations are ahead,” a top South Korean unification ministry official said, asking to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Kwon Ho-ung, the North’s top negotiator, avoided specifics about humanitarian projects in his keynote speech, but analysts said that the North hopes to link the resumption of emotional family reunions with Seoul’s food and fertilizer assistance to Pyongyang.

Shortly after the North conducted its missile tests in July, the South suspended food and fertilizer aid. After the North’s nuclear weapon test in October, the possible resumption of aid was blocked.

In retaliation, the communist nation immediately suspended inter-Korean talks and reunions for families separated by the sealed border since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.

Seoul may offer to ship some of the fertilizer aid to Pyongyang shortly after the talks so that it can be used for rice seedling planting this spring. But the South maintains the position that more fertilizer and rice will be given in accordance with how much progress the North makes in implementing the steps agreed upon during the six-nation talks on its nuclear dismantlement, according to sources.

Not only a date for the resumption of economic talks with Pyongyang as the venue, they will also have to agree on how to cooperate in inter-Korean projects, such as reopening cross-border railways, they said.

The South’s chief negotiator has proposed test runs of reconnected cross-border railways in the first half of this year, and the launch of operations by the end of 2007, according to pool reports.

As a precondition for the operation of cross-border railways, Lee said it is necessary to make headway in the inter-Korea economic project, which involves exchanging raw materials from the South for the North’s minerals.

North Korea abruptly called off scheduled test runs of cross-border railways in May under apparent pressure from the hard-line military. It also led to mothballing an economic accord under which South Korea was supposed to provide raw materials in exchange for the North’s minerals. North Korea’s subsequent missile and nuclear weapons tests further clouded hopes of implementing the accord.

The tracks, one line cutting across the western section of the border and the other crossing through the eastern side, have been completed and were set to undergo test runs. A set of parallel roads have been in use since 2005 for South Koreans traveling to the North.

South Korea has repeatedly called on North Korea to provide a security guarantee for the operation of cross-border railways, but the North has yet to give an answer on the issue.

The reconnection of the severed train lines was one of the tangible inter-Korean rapprochement projects agreed upon following the historic summit between then South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in 2000.

In 2005, South Korea agreed to provide the North with US$80 million worth of raw materials to help it produce clothing, footwear and soap starting in 2006. In return, the North was to provide the South with minerals, such as zinc and magnesite, after mines were developed with South Korean investments, guaranteed by the Pyongyang government.

The talks, the 20th since the leaders of the two Koreas held their first-ever summit in Pyongyang in June 2000, come as the world is paying keen attention to whether North Korea will honor its promise to take the first steps toward ending its nuclear weapons program in return for energy aid.

The ministerial talks, the highest-level channel of regular dialogue between the two Koreas, had been suspended amid tension over North Korea’s missile tests in July and its nuclear weapon test in October.

On Feb. 13, North Korea agreed to shut down its nuclear facilities and eventually dismantle them in exchange for energy aid and other benefits, while the U.S. agreed to discuss normalizing relations with the communist nation. Only two days later, Seoul and Pyongyang agreed to resume ministerial dialogue after a seven-month hiatus.

In the deal, North Korea will receive initial aid equal to 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil for shutting down and sealing its main nuclear reactor and related facilities at Yongbyon, 80 kilometers north of Pyongyang, within 60 days. International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors will determine whether the North carries out the steps properly.

North Korea can eventually receive another 950,000 tons in aid if it disables the reactor irreversibly and declares that it has ended all nuclear programs. The cost of the aid will be equitably distributed among South Korea, the U.S., China, Japan and Russia, according to officials.


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