Koreas end talks without deal, schedule new meeting

Suh Ho, the head of South Korea's working-level delegation, right, and his North Korean counterpart Park Chol Su leave after their meeting at Kaesong Industrial District Management Committee in Kaesong, North Korea, on Wednesday, July 10, 2013. North
Suh Ho, the head of South Korea's working-level delegation, right, and his North Korean counterpart Park Chol Su leave after their meeting at Kaesong Industrial District Management Committee in Kaesong, North Korea, on Wednesday, July 10, 2013. North and South Korea failed to reach agreement on Wednesday on reopening a joint industrial estate built as a symbol of reconciliation, with Pyongyang accusing Seoul of insincerity, but they will meet again next week. -- FILE PHOTO: AP

SEOUL (AFP) - North and South Korea failed to reach agreement on Wednesday on reopening a joint industrial estate built as a symbol of reconciliation, with Pyongyang accusing Seoul of insincerity, but they will meet again next week.

The two sides separately agreed in principle to hold discussions about restarting family reunions, as they focused on dialogue after months of high military tensions.

The Kaesong estate just north of the border opened in 2004 but shut down three months ago as relations approached crisis point.

At a rare weekend meeting the two sides agreed in principle to reopen the estate, where 53,000 North Koreans worked in 123 Seoul-owned factories producing textiles or light industrial goods.

Talks on Wednesday at the estate failed to reach a firm agreement on a restart but the two sides will meet again next Monday.

"We both agreed that the complex should be maintained and further developed," the South's chief delegate Suh Ho told reporters.

"The North argued that it should be resumed as soon as machinery checkups are finished, while we pointed out that the same situation could be repeated even after the reopening if there is no firm guarantee on preventing a recurrence (of the shutdown).

"So it was decided that this issue would be discussed at the next meeting," he added.

The North said it made "sincere efforts" to reach an agreement.

"But the south side insisted on unreasonable assertions to shift the blame for the suspension of the operation in (Kaesong) onto the north side... and intentionally threw hurdles in the way of the talks," its official news agency complained.

The discussions came as a senior North Korean diplomat in Switzerland took the unusual step of briefing foreign journalists at his embassy, stating that Pyongyang was ready to hold international talks in a bid to calm regional tensions.

So Se Pyong, the country's envoy to the United Nations in Geneva, blamed Washington for stoking strife through military exercises with South Korea but he also struck a conciliatory note on possible future talks.

"We are now ready to have any kind of talks to ease the tensions in the Korean peninsula and to solve any kind of issue, mostly security issues," he said.

The North in April withdrew its workers from Kaesong, an important source of hard currency for Pyongyang, citing military tensions and what it called the South's hostility.

The South now wants firm safeguards from the North against shutting Kaesong down unilaterally, to keep the estate insulated from changes in relations.

This would be a bitter pill for the North to swallow as it means it would accept responsibility for the April closure.

The talks - even though fruitless so far - were a contrast to months of cross-border friction and threats of war by Pyongyang, after its February nuclear test attracted tougher UN sanctions.

In a separate approach, Pyongyang proposed that a Red Cross meeting on restarting a temporary family reunion programme be held on July 19.

It also suggested talks on July 17 about restarting tours by southerners to its Mount Kumgang resort.

The South's unification ministry said it agreed in principle to open talks on reunions for families separated since the 1950-53 war, but a venue and date has not yet been agreed.

The ministry said it was premature to discuss the Kumgang tours while the Kaesong talks are still going on.

The once-buzzing industrial zone 10km north of the heavily fortified border - which had previously remained largely resilient to turbulence in relations - had the air of a ghost town on Wednesday, according to pool reports from Kaesong.

Factories and convenience stores were shuttered and dark, traffic signals were off and North Korean workers plucked overgrown weeds from the sidewalk outside the 15-storey building where the talks were held.

Some South Korean factory owners, who visited their plants on the sidelines of the official dialogue, described equipment that had rusted in the damp summer heat, and warned that the shutdown meant some business would be lost for good.

"Officials are holding talks about reviving Kaesong, but businessmen like us feel that we can't reopen factories unless the North promises that the current situation won't be repeated," said one who asked not be named.

"Without such a promise, what kind of buyers will give us orders?" Another said he told a North Korean official that business would likely be half the pre-shutdown levels.

"I told him the North was the one that closed the complex anyway so they needed to apologise," the South Korean businessman said.