SEOUL, August 14- The two Koreas held fresh talks Wednesday on reopening a joint industrial estate, ahead of South Korea US military exercises next week that the North says are a rehearsal for war.
The two sides have already met for six rounds of fruitless discussions on the future of the estate in Kaesong, which was effectively shut down by North Korea in April as military tensions soared on the divided peninsula.
With South Korea starting an annual military drill with the United States on Monday, the result of the latest negotiations could determine whether the peninsula is sucked into another dangerous cycle of escalating hostilities.
“The fact we are sitting here for the seventh round shows that the issue is not an easy one to solve,” the South’s chief delegate Kim Ki Woong told his North Korean counterpart Pak Chol Su as the talks began in Kaesong, 10 kilometres (six miles) inside the North Korean border.
Pak likened the negotiations to farming and said the recent break in an extended heatwave on the peninsula boded well.
“With the weather so good, I think we can tend the field well and can possibly reap good produce,” Pak said, according to a pool report.
An association representing the owners of the 123 South Korean companies in Kaesong said Tuesday that the time had come to make a lasting deal on resuming operations.
“This time, our government and the North’s authorities must reach agreement on reopening Kaesong without fail,” it said in a statement.
The North had proposed the seventh round of talks last week, just hours after Seoul announced it was going to start compensation payments totalling $250 million to businesses impacted by Kaesong’s closure.
The payout move was widely seen as the first step towards a permanent withdrawal from the zone.
Established in 2004 as a rare symbol of inter Korean cooperation, Kaesong was a key hard currency earner for the North and the decision to shut it down took many observers by surprise.
The project had managed to ride out previous North South crises without serious disruption, but it eventually fell victim to an extended period of heightened tension following the North’s third nuclear test in February.
Pyongyang initially barred access to the park, then withdrew its 53,000 strong workforce from the South Korean firms.
Wednesday’s talks will be dominated by the same issue that deadlocked the previous six rounds: South Korea’s demand that the North provide a binding guarantee not to close Kaesong again in the future.
“North Korea caused the trouble,” the South’s Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl Jae said in a speech in Seoul just before the talks began.
“Building trust between the two Koreas will not be possible overnight as the ties have been riddled with distrust and hostility over the past 60 years … but now is time to go back to basics,” Ryoo said.
North Korea insists ensuring that the complex stays open is a joint responsibility that requires mutual assurances.
“There have been signs that both sides really want to move forward this time, but the guarantee issue is still the main obstacle,” said Yang Moo Jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.
“If the talks collapse, we’ll likely see a new cycle of tensions, with the North using the coming military exercises to get the ball rolling,” Yang said.
The annual South Korea US drill, dubbed “Ulchi Freedom Guardian”, involves about 50,000 South Korean and 30,000 US troops practising a North Korean invasion scenario.
Although largely computer simulated, it is viewed as highly provocative by North Korea, which has already issued dire warnings of its impact on stability on the peninsula.
“If the drill takes place, conditions in the region will become unpredictable and escalate to the brink of war,” the North’s ruling party newspaper Rodong Sinmun said last month.
The North had cited similar joint exercises earlier this year as the main trigger for Kaesong’s closure.
If progress is made on Wednesday towards reopening Kaesong, then Pyongyang may choose to tone down its criticism of next week’s drill so as to avoid endangering a resumption of operations.