Two Koreas fail to agree on reviving joint factory estate

North Korea's chief delegate Pak Chol Su (left) walks with his South Korean counterpart Kim Ki Woong (right) before a fourth round of talks at the Kaesong industrial complex in North Korea on Wednesday, July 17, 2013. North and South Korea failed on
North Korea's chief delegate Pak Chol Su (left) walks with his South Korean counterpart Kim Ki Woong (right) before a fourth round of talks at the Kaesong industrial complex in North Korea on Wednesday, July 17, 2013. North and South Korea failed on Wednesday to reach agreement on reopening their jointly-run industrial estate as they wrangled over who was to blame for its shutdown. -- PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (AFP) - North and South Korea failed on Wednesday to reach agreement on reopening their jointly-run industrial estate as they wrangled over who was to blame for its shutdown.

A fourth round of talks about the complex again ended without agreement, but the two sides will meet again next Monday, said Seoul's chief delegate Kim Ki Woong.

The Kaesong estate in North Korea, the last remaining symbol of cross-border cooperation, shut down in April as military tensions mounted after the North's February nuclear test and South Korean-US war games.

Dialogue resumed in recent weeks but little progress has been made amid squabbles over which side should take responsibility for the suspension of business there.

Wednesday's discussions appeared to be a repeat of previous rounds, with each side refusing to budge on conditions for resuming operations at the estate, built after a landmark inter-Korean summit in 2000.

The South urged the North to promise not to cause another closure and to take a respectful and constructive position to resolve the issue, according to an official with Seoul's unification ministry.

However, the North reiterated its previous position that operations at the zone should be normalised as soon as possible, the official said.

"There was a big difference" over how to work out a legal framework to prevent a future shutdown, Mr Kim told reporters at the end of Wednesday's talks, according to pool reports.

Kaesong was previously a valuable source of hard currency for the impoverished North.

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

But little progress has been made since then amid squabbles over which side should take responsibility for the suspension, and Pyongyang's refusal to accept Seoul's demand for firm safeguards against another unilateral closure.

Seoul also wants to allow foreign firms to operate in Kaesong in an apparent attempt to make it more difficult for Pyongyang to shut the estate if relations worsen.

The North has called for an unconditional and quick restart, blaming Seoul's "hostile policy" for the suspension and for the current deadlock in negotiations.

"They kept talking past each other. These can hardly be called negotiations but a dialogue of the deaf," said Dr Chang Yong Seok, senior researcher at the Institute for Peace and Unification at Seoul National University.

Professor Yang Moo Jin of Seoul's University of North Korean Studies said both sides feel pressure to achieve some results before the next US-South Korean joint military exercise, Ulchi Freedom Guardian, takes place next month.

The North needs to satisfy a US demand that it improve ties with Seoul before any talks with Washington.

Seoul meanwhile will be seeking to cool tensions ahead of the military exercise, which if left unchecked could smother new President Park Geun Hye's policy of measured trust-building in its infancy, Prof Yang said.

"Both leaders of the two sides are taking a strong hands-on approach, meddling in the talks too intrusively, leaving their delegates little room to wiggle at negotiations," he said.

Kaesong was the most high-profile casualty of the months of friction that followed the North's third nuclear test in February, the subsequent tightening of UN sanctions and the US-South Korean military exercises.

Wednesday's talks on restarting Kaesong were held at the estate, some 10km inside the North.

Many of the South Korean firms with factories there, facing millions of dollars in damages due to the shutdown, have threatened to leave the complex permanently if the shutdown continues.