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North Korea proposes meeting on joint factory park

SEOUL, South Korea – North Korea has proposed a meeting on a key joint industrial park, a South Korean official said Saturday amid mounting tension on the divided peninsula over the North’s defiant rocket launch.

The complex in the North Korean border town of Kaesong is the last major joint project between the rival Koreas and a key source of currency for the impoverished communist regime.

Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Ho-nyeon told reporters that the North proposed to meet with South Korean officials at the complex April 21, but it is not clear exactly what the country wants to discuss.

Earlier Saturday, however, South Korea’s Dong-a Ilbo newspaper said that the North proposed the meeting to discuss a South Korean man who has been held in the complex since late last month for allegedly denouncing the North’s political system.

Kim said South Korean officials were reviewing the North’s proposal.

South Korea has repeatedly called on North Korea to grant access to the South Korean man, but the North has refused to do so, without providing any specific reason.

North Korea has also been holding two female American journalists since they allegedly crossed the border from China on March 17 while reporting on North Korean refugees. North Korea has said it will indict and try the journalists — Laura Ling and Euna Lee of former Vice President Al Gore’s Current TV media venture — for allegedly crossing the border illegally and engaging in “hostile acts.”

Tension on the Korean peninsula has heightened since the North conducted a long-range rocket test April 5 despite repeated international warning. The North has claimed it sent up a satellite into space, but regional powers counter nothing made it into orbit and the country only tested its long-range missile technology.

Earlier this week, North Korea said it would restart its nuclear program and quit international disarmament talks in protest of the U.N. Security Council’s condemnation of the rocket launch, which some say tested long-range missile technology.

Four U.S. monitors of North’s nuclear program left the communist nation after the regime ordered them out. They declined to speak to reporters after their arrival in Beijing on Friday. The last remaining American on the monitoring team — an administrator — left Saturday, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported.

The pullout of international inspectors will leave the global community with no onsite means to monitor North Korea’s nuclear facilities, which can yield weapons-grade plutonium if restarted.

Stoking tension further, South Korea has decided to join a U.S.-led program aimed at halting the spread of weapons of mass destruction that mainly target so-called rogue states like North Korea. The North has warned that it will regard the South’s participation in the Proliferation Security Initiative as “a declaration of war.”

South Korea had planned to officially announce its participation in the program Sunday but decided to put it off following the North’s proposal, said a Foreign Ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity citing department policy.

The official did not elaborate, but Yonhap news agency quoted unnamed Seoul officials as saying the delay was aimed at reviewing “factors like inter-Korean talks” but that did not mean that South Korea will cancel its plan to join the program.

Ties between the two Koreas have been strained since a pro-U.S., conservative government took office in Seoul last year with a tougher policy on the North. Pyongyang responded by cutting ties, halting key joint projects and significantly restricting border traffic.

The Kaesong complex has been considered a promising example of inter-Korean cooperation and it marries Seoul’s technology and management expertise with Pyongyang’s cheap labor.

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