North, South Korea set Aug 14 for Gaeseong talks

The two Koreas agreed Wednesday to hold talks on Aug. 14 on the reopening of their joint industrial park in Gaeseong.

The North said it would accept Seoul's offer of talks and lift its four-month suspension and ban on South Koreans' entry to the border city.

The statement came hours after Seoul unveiled plans to begin compensating Gaeseong-based companies in what was seen as the first phase of its "grave action" in response to the North's failure to meet its demand for a pledge not to close the complex again.

In a five-point "special statement," the North said it would "fully protect" the safety of South Koreans and their assets.

But it appeared to be sticking to its position that the safeguards against another closure should be pledged by both sides, while calling for "normal operation without being affected by any situation in any case."

The South's Unification Ministry accepted the North's proposal.

"The government considers that North Korea has responded with a forward-looking attitude to our offer of governmental talks to resolve the Gaeseong park issue," Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Hyung-suk told reporters.

"We agree to the North's proposal for the Aug. 14 meeting in the district and hope that it will come up with reasonable measures to resolve the Gaeseong park issue and its future-oriented normalization," he said.

On July 28, Seoul made a "final" proposal for a fresh round of dialogue on reopening the idle business district, saying the people were "reaching the limits of their patience."

Pyongyang broke its 10-day silence with the statement from the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea.

"The North side will lift the step for temporarily suspending operation in the (complex) it declared on April 8 last and totally allow the entry of South Korean businesses," said the CPRK, which is in charge of cross-border affairs.

"It will ensure the normal attendance of its workers at the South Korean enterprises which are ready to operate after equipment is checked. It will guarantee the safety of personnel of the south side in (Gaeseong) and fully protect the properties of businesses."

The sixth round of inter-Korean talks in Gaeseong on July 25 fell apart over how to prevent another closure of the factory zone.

Seoul demands the North's safeguards against a future suspension, while Pyongyang has insisted on joint commitments.

But it remains unclear whether the seventh round will yield a breakthrough, with the North still calling on both sides to prevent a relapse.

In its final draft offered at the sixth round of talks on July 25, the North inserted a statement that "the South guarantees that it will not pose impure political words and military threats targeting the industrial district, and unless such problems are raised, the North guarantees that it will not take such steps as an entry ban and pullout of workers."

As corporate damage mushrooms, Seoul has pressed for a response, threatening "grave action" if the North continues to rebuke the South's demand.

It did not elaborate on its options but officials have hinted at a permanent shutdown of the complex as an "ultimately inevitable" step. Rumours had it that it would soon cut power and water supplies to Gaeseong.

In an apparent first step toward the district's complete shutdown, the ministry unveiled plans earlier in the day to compensate the companies suffering losses from their idle plants in Gaeseong starting Thursday.

It took insurance claims from 109 firms that collectively demanded 280.9 billion won ($251.4 million). That represents a virtual pullout of the majority of the 123 businesses running factories in the border city.

According to related laws and enforcement decrees, insurance payouts can be made in case of a defeasance of inter-Korean agreements, or noncompliance, and ensuing disabling of investment business, or business suspension for one month or longer, ministry spokesman Kim Hyung-suk said.

"In this case, the reason (behind the decision) is North Korea's unilateral noncompliance of inter-Korean agreements such as declaring a temporary halt of the complex and pullout of workers on April 8," he told an impromptu news conference.

Kim added that the decision was based on assessments by the state-run Export-Import Bank running the 351.5 billion won insurance scheme for 140 companies, and a vote by the South and North Exchange and Cooperation Promotion Council, a state-run policy advisory panel.

Businesses have reportedly suffered collective losses of 1.05 trillion won since Pyongyang barred South Koreans' entry to the town and pulled out its 53,000 workers in early April over UN sanctions and South Korea-US military exercises.

The tally was based on claims submitted to the ministry between May 1 and June 7 by the 123 enterprises that have plants there and their 111 affiliates.

Under the law, the government should finish deliberations on their claims and deliver the results within three months of the filing. Once the companies collect the funds, they are required to relinquish the rights to their property in Gaeseong to the state.