South Korea on Tuesday called for working-level talks with North Korea to take place on Oct. 2 with an aim to resume tours to Mount Kumgang that have been suspended for nearly five years.
The proposal made by Seoul's Ministry of Unification to the North's United Front Department of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea is in response to suggestions by Pyongyang last week that called for the tourism talks to take place in late August or early September.
Seoul had already agreed that the talks should take place at the North's mountain resort after initially insisting they be held at the neutral border village of Panmunjom on Sept. 25. The talks are seen as helpful in building trust and easing tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
The tours to the scenic mountain resort on the communist country's east coast began in 1998, but they were halted following the shooting death of a South Korean tourist by a North Korean guard in July 2008.
Pyongyang views the tours as a lucrative source of steady income and has previously called on its neighbor to reopen the joint venture, but Seoul has been slow to respond stressing that any normalization of operations requires measures to ensure safety of South Korean tourists.
A ministry official said the new suggested date reflects the need for both Koreas to concentrate on ongoing efforts to arrange reunions for families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War and efforts to reopen their joint factory park in Kaesong.
An agreement to normalize the Kaesong Industrial Complex was reached on Aug. 14, following which South Korean President Park Geun-hye urged the North to hold talks to restart family reunions that were last held in 2010.
"Seoul feels that there is no need to rush the talks and believes the one-week delay is a practical move," said the official, who declined to be identified. He stressed that the tours must be separated from the family reunions. This is in contrast to the North's stance that the two issues are linked.
He also said that any negotiations on the tours should strive for, what the government calls, "progressive development" of the tours that includes various safeguards.
The ministry official, in addition, said that the North has accepted calls by Seoul to allow an advanced party to visit the mountain resort on Wednesday and Thursday to check various facilities needed for the reunions set for Sept. 25-30. South and North Korea plan to send 100 people each to the reunions that can alleviate the suffering of people who have not seen their loved ones for over six decades.
This team will be made up of 56 people and be led by a representative from the Korea National Red Cross and Hyundai Asan Corp. as well as technicians from such companies as the Korea Electric Power Corp.
Earlier in the day, the ministry in charge of inter-Korean relations said the South sees family reunions as an important humanitarian project that needs to be separated from economical and political events.
If tours are to resume, the North needs to rescind all unilateral actions it took to confiscate property at the resort that was built with South Korean capital, it said.
"The North must take such steps immediately, and there can be no preconditions," another official said, pointing out that Seoul had always viewed actions taken by the North as being unlawful.
On efforts to reopen the Kaesong factory park, the official said that 541 businessmen and technicians are in the North Korean border town checking facilities to determine what repairs need to be done.
He said that some North Korean workers have been called in to help with the inspections.
The official said full-fledged operations will likely take place after the first meeting of a joint committee that has been tasked to run the complex.
Businessmen have urged the government to speed up the process of setting up an administrative and legal infrastructure to prevent a recurrence of the shutdown and argued once this is ironed out, they can start work almost immediately. Companies with factories in Kaesong said work can begin as early as next month.
The new organization will take over duties exercised by the North's General Bureau for Central Guidance to the Development of the Special Zone, which had essentially ran Kaesong before the April shutdown.
Officials here said that the two sides have little difference on the role and composition of the new organization. Seoul and Pyongyang exchanged three proposals on how the committee will be run and the need to set up a permanent secretariat.
Meanwhile, the government said, of the 140 companies eligible to receive insurance payments for the shutdown of Kaesong, 27 have collected 89.5 billion won (US$80.2 million) since Aug. 8.
Once the payment is made, ownership of assets in Kaesong are turned over to the South Korean government.