SEOUL (AFP) – North and South Korea will hold fresh talks Wednesday on reopening their joint industrial zone as hopes of an early agreement fade following months of friction.
A fourth round of talks over the complex, a rare symbol of cooperation between the two rivals, will be held just across the border in the North and follow three failed attempts this month which all ended in deadlock.
"They kept talking past each other. These can hardly be called negotiations but deaf arguments," Chang Yong-Seok, Senior Researcher at the Institute for Peace and Unification at the Seoul National University told AFP.
At a meeting earlier this month, the two sides agreed in principle to reopen the estate, where 53,000 North Koreans worked in 123 South-owned factories producing textiles or light industrial goods.
But little progress has been made since then amid squabbles over which side will take responsibility for the suspension, and Pyongyang's refusal to accept Seoul's demand for firm safeguards against another unilateral shutdown.
Seoul also wants to allow foreign firms to operate in Kaesong in an apparent bid to make it more difficult for Pyongyang to shut the estate if relations worsen.
The North has called for an unconditional and quick restart, blaming Seoul's "hostile policy" for the suspension and the current deadlock in negotiations.
Professor Yang Moo-Jin of the University of North Korean Studies said the fourth and fifth rounds of talks would serve as a "watershed" in attempts to rescue Kaesong, the last remaining symbol of reconciliation.
"Both sides feel pressure to produce some results before the US-South Korea joint military exercise, Ulji Freedom Guide, next month", Yang said.
The North needs to satisfy a US demand that it improve ties with Seoul before any talks with Washington.
Seoul meanwhile will be seeking to cool tensions ahead of the military exercise, which if left unchecked could smother new President Park Geun-Hye's policy of measured trust building in its infancy, Yang said.
But, he added: "Both leaders of the two sides are taking a strong hands-on approach, meddling in the talks too intrusively, leaving their delegates little room to wiggle at negotiations."
Kaesong was the most high-profile casualty of the months of elevated tensions that followed the North's third nuclear test, the subsequent tightened UN sanctions and US-South Korean military exercises.
Pyongyang last Wednesday proposed separate meetings to discuss the resumption of suspended cross-border tours to its scenic Mount Kumgang resort, and the reunion of families separated since the Korean War.
But it retracted its proposal a day later after Seoul only accepted the offer of talks on family reunions while refusing to discuss the Mount Kumgang tours -- another former valued source of hard currency for the impoverished communist state.
The talks have consistently been taking place at the estate in Kaesong, some 10 kilometres (six miles) inside the North.
Many of the South Korean firms with factories in Kaesong, facing millions of dollars in damages due to the shutdown, have threatened to leave the complex permanently if the current suspension continues.