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South Korea wants talks with North Korea amid tension

SEOUL, South Korea – South Korea said Friday that it wants to meet with North Korea early next week to discuss a South Korean worker detained in the North and a joint industrial project that has been troubled by tensions between the sides.

It was unclear if the North would agree to the offer. Pyongyang did not accept an earlier proposal to discuss the industrial zone due to differences over whether the detained worker should be on the agenda.

The Unification Ministry said it sent a new proposal for a meeting next week. “We hope the North will accept our proposal,” ministry spokesman Kim Ho-nyeon said.

South Korea says the detained worker is its top priority in such talks, but the North says any meeting should focus only on its industrial zone in Kaesong where more than 100 South Korean companies run factories, according to Seoul officials.

North Korea detained the Seoul worker at the zone on March 30 for allegedly denouncing Pyongyang’s political system.

Relations between the two Koreas have significantly deteriorated since Seoul’s conservative President Lee Myung-bak took office in February last year. Since then, reconciliation talks have been cut off and all key joint projects — except the factory park — have been suspended.

Pyongyang also has ratcheted up tension in its standoff with foreign governments over its nuclear programs. The regime has quit nuclear disarmament talks, expelled all inspectors and threatened to conduct nuclear and missile tests.

The two Koreas had their first government-level talks under Lee last month, but the meeting produced little progress, with the North refusing to free the detained worker while demanding that Seoul pay more for using North Korean workers and the land in Kaesong.

North Korea later proposed that a follow-up meeting be held earlier this week, but the South requested in a counterproposal that they meet on Friday. The North did not accept the proposal due to its opposition to Seoul’s demand that the issue of the detained worker should be on the agenda, officials said.

Last weekend, the North’s committee handling ties with the South said that the country would not even consider talking with South Korea, lashing out at Seoul for criticizing the isolated country’s human rights record.

North Korea has also been holding two American journalists since March 17. Laura Ling and Euna Lee, reporters for former Vice President Al Gore’s San Francisco-based Current TV media venture, were detained while reporting on North Korean refugees living in China.

Pyongyang said Thursday that it will put the reporters on trial on June 4.

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