- The Washington Times - Monday, December 12, 2005

SEOUL — As South Korea scrambled to defuse a growing crisis in Pyongyang-Washington relations by kick-starting six-party nuclear talks, the U.S. ambassador to Korea called for the linking of economic aid with progress on denuclearization.

The communist state, meanwhile, responded to U.S. critiques with predictably strident rhetoric — but also took the unusual step of inviting Western tourists to visit in 2006.

South Korean Foreign Ministry officials quoted by Yonhap news agency said they hoped Seoul could persuade North Korea to return to six-party nuclear talks — involving the two Koreas, the United States, China, Russia and Japan — at inter-Korean ministerial-level talks that begin today. The North has said it will boycott talks, expected to commence next month, unless the United States withdraws financial sanctions against it. The Foreign Ministry officials cited increased North-South “interdependence” as a point of leverage.

Also yesterday, U.S. Ambassador in Seoul Alexander Vershbow, speaking at an economic forum, called on the South to link economic aid with progress at denuclearization talks.

Noting that Washington and Seoul are “working to calibrate our approach toward economic cooperation with North Korea,” he added: “We also see a need for coordination between economic cooperation and progress on the six-party talks.”

Since last year, 15 Southern companies, employing 5,000 Northern workers, have set up factories at the Kaesong Industrial Zone, an insulated business park on North Korea’s border with the South. In the next few years, Seoul policy-makers expect 2,000 Southern companies to establish themselves, employing 300,000 to 700,000 Northern workers.

Seoul hopes the complex will provide a model for North-South economic cooperation and is reluctant to link progress at the complex with strategic issues.

Under international agreements, South Korea is required to consult with the United States before transferring any U.S.-patented technologies that could have potential military use to North Korea. This has caused frustration in the South, with such pedestrian equipment as telephones and personal computers destined for Kaesong being subject to clearance.

Mr. Vershbow, appointed in October, has shocked some in South Korea with his tough attitude toward Pyongyang, calling it a “criminal regime.” Also last week, Jay Lefkowitz, the U.S. special envoy on North Korean human rights, spoke combatively about the state’s purported human rights abuses.

On Saturday, the Korea Central News Agency called the statements a “provocative declaration of war” and warned that the North would “mercilessly retaliate.”

Amid the diplomatic storm, North Korea sent a less-than-combative message by inviting Westerners — including Americans — to visit the self-proclaimed socialist paradise as tourists.

North Korean tourism authorities contacted Koryo Tours, a Beijing-based company, Saturday night, extending an invitation for all foreigners to attend a performance of Mass Gymnastics in 2006, the company said. The spectacle, presented this fall, was expected to occur again in 2008, but has been moved forward to 2006.

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