North, South Korea hold first talks since Pyongyang purge


Officials from the G20 Seoul Conference look at miniature models of the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC) at the Kaesong Industrial District Management Committee office in Kaesong, a few miles inside North Korea from the heavily fortified border December 19, 2013. Photo - Reuters/Kim Hong-Ji

North and South Korea Thursday held their first talks since Pyongyang's shock purge raised tensions, meeting at a joint industrial park in the North as a delegation of G20 officials toured the facility.

Last week's execution of Jang Song-Thaek, a high-level official who was the uncle and former political mentor of leader Kim Jong-Un, sparked international fears of instability in the nuclear-armed North.

The last round of North-South talks about the operations of the Kaesong industrial zone was in September, when the complex -- just over the border in North Korea -- reopened after a five-month closure caused by military tensions.

The meeting in Kaesong coincided with a trip by a 25-member foreign delegation to Kaesong as South Korea seeks outside investors in the estate, hoping their involvement would prevent the North shutting it down in the future.

The Seoul-funded Kaesong, which opened in 2004 as a rare symbol of cross-border cooperation, employs some 53,000 North Koreans in around 120 South Korean light industrial firms.

But its operations have often been hampered when cross-border ties turn sour.

Thursday's delegation included senior Turkish financial official Ibrahim Canakci and other officials from the world's 20 leading economies, as well as executives from the International Monetary Fund and Asian Development Bank. They were visiting Seoul for a conference.

They inspected several factories run by South Korean businessmen and other facilities in Kaesong.

"We're very impressed with what we've seen here, in terms of people having jobs and producing," Canakci said, according to pool reports.

Hong Yang-Ho, the South Korean head of the estate's management committee, described the complex as a "win-win model that has eased tensions and promoted peace" between the two Koreas.

He said Kaesong, which offers skilled labour, tax benefits and low logistical costs, could attract a massive amount of foreign investment if the two Koreas address concerns about communications, transport and customs procedures.

"Everything is being operated as normal," he said, adding that Jang's execution had not affected operations in Kaesong.

At the ShinWon plant manufacturing clothes and handbags, female North Korean worker Ri Yang-Hee described Jang's execution as "his own problem" and said: "The people of North Korea are good, and are doing their best."

North Korea had previously allowed foreign delegations to visit the park, most recently officials from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development in 2010.

The United States, South Korea and others have expressed fears that the execution of Jang over an alleged plot indicates high-level instability in the opaque regime.

Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-Jae expressed concern at the political upheaval and urged Kim's regime to take more responsibility for its people.

"I want to request North Korea to take a more responsible attitude towards its people, and I urge it to shed its old mentality, prejudice and arrogance," he said

Another foreign visitor also headed to North Korea on Thursday -- US basketball star Dennis Rodman, who has struck up an unlikely friendship with Kim and plans to train a North Korean basketball team.

Rodman said on his way to Pyongyang that he was hoping a basketball game he is organising in North Korea could "engage" the American people and US President Barack Obama.

"Sport is so important to people around the world so I hope this is going to engage the American people, especially Obama," the eccentric former Chicago Bulls star said at Beijing airport.

Rodman is organising an exhibition game between the North Koreans and a team of mainly ex-NBA players on January 8, to mark Kim's birthday.

The young Swiss-educated ruler is reported to be a keen basketball fan.

"North Korea is striving to project an image that the execution will not disturb international affairs and dealings with the South," Yang Moo-Jin, a professor at Seoul's University of North Korean Studies, told AFP.

"At the same time, Kim Jong-Un will continue with benevolent gestures to calm public anxieties domestically," he said.

The North's ruling party daily Rodong Sinmun said Thursday that Kim had sent fishing boats to a military unit, which vowed to catch more seafood to improve its soldiers' diet.

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