SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA (AP) - South Korea said it will hold talks Tuesday with North Korea to discuss a troubled joint industrial complex, marking the first official dialogue between the two countries under South Korean President Lee Myung-bak.
Unification Ministry spokeswoman Lee Jong-joo said Sunday that officials of the two Koreas would meet in the border town of Kaesong on Tuesday to discuss the factory complex, adding that it would be the first “contact between the governments” under Lee’s conservative administration.
Ties between the Koreas have been strained since Lee took office in Seoul in February 2008 after pledging to take a tougher line on the North, holding it accountable to its disarmament commitments in return for aid from the South. North Korea responded by cutting off ties.
South Korea announced Saturday that the North had made the surprise call for a meeting.
The meeting comes amid rising tensions over North Korea’s rocket launch and its weekslong detention of a South Korean man in Kaesong accused of denouncing the North’s political system.
The industrial zone on the northern side of the border is the last major joint project between the rival Koreas and a key source of foreign currency for the impoverished North’s communist regime.
In recent months, the North has restricted access to the Kaesong industrial complex by tightening border controls, raising concerns among participating South Korean companies about the project’s viability.
Since Lee took office, North and South Korea have met only for military talks or on the sidelines of six-nation negotiations aimed at North Korea’s nuclear disarmament.
North Korea has expelled international monitors, vowed to quit six-nation disarmament talks and restart its nuclear program to protest the U.N. Security Council’s condemnation of the April 5 launch.
North Korea insists it sent a satellite into space, but regional powers say nothing reached orbit and the launch was actually a test of long-range missile technology.
“We will thoroughly ensure that the inter-Korean contact will be made in a way that secures the safety of people and contributes to the development of the Kaesong complex,” Lee said, in an apparent reference to the detained South Korean.
North Korea is also holding two female American journalists who allegedly crossed the border from China on March 17 while reporting on North Korean refugees. It has said it will try the journalists _ Laura Ling and Euna Lee of former Vice President Al Gore’s Current TV media venture _ on charges of entering the country illegally and engaging in “hostile acts.”
Sunday’s announcement came a day after North Korea’s military warned South Korea to stay out of a U.S.-led security initiative aimed at halting the spread of weapons of mass destruction.
An unidentified North Korean military spokesman said South Korea’s full participation in the Proliferation Security Initiative would be seen “as a declaration of undisguised confrontation and a declaration of a war” against North Korea.
South Korea’s Unification Ministry expressed regret Sunday over the North’s threats and said joining the program would not be a “declaration of confrontation or war.”
South Korea, which has been an observer, had planned to officially announce its full participation Sunday, but decided on a delay following the North’s proposal of a meeting, a Foreign Ministry official said Saturday on condition of anonymity, citing department policy.
The program, which began in 2003, has been joined by more than 90 countries to help deter trade in weapons of mass destruction and missiles by states including North Korea and Iran.
Countries participating in the initiative exchange intelligence and hold maritime drills to stop and search ships suspected of carrying nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, materials to make them or missiles to deliver them.