SCMP Monday, July 31, 2000

Koreas agree to reopen border offices

ROGER DEAN DU MARS and AGENCIES in Seoul


Updated at 1.10pm:
The two Koreas moved closer to reconcilation on Monday, announcing an agreement to reopen liaison offices at Panmunjom - the one point of contact along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that divides them - and to move toward re-establishing a rail link.

South Korea's Vice-Minister for Culture and Tourism Kim Soon-kyu told reporters the two sides would open the offices, first used in 1992 but abandoned by the North in 1996, on August 15.

''We have agreed on these issues to emphasis the historic summit held in Pyongyang and to implement the joint communique signed by the two leaders on June 15,'' Mr Kim said, referring to last month's first summit between the two Koreas.

''We believe it is important to implement this agreement and hope our talks can become (regular) meetings that foster peace and reunification,'' he said.

Mr Kim said the two sides had agreed in principle to relink the two countries by rail, one of several issues to be followed up by a joint consulting committee.

If completed, the reconstructed railway would link the South's capital, Seoul, with the city of Shinuiju, North Korea's northwestern-most city on the border with China.

They will also work together to make it easier for Korean-Japanese to visit the two Koreas, something currently complicated by the fact they hold passports from either North or South Korea and thus cannot enter the other. Mr Kim did not elaborate.

The two sides will also hold celebrations beginning August 15, Liberation Day, marking the liberation of Korea from Japanese occupation at the end of World War II.

The measures are intended to implement parts of the declaration signed by North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and South Korean President Kim Dae-jung at the end of last month's historic summit.

The two leaders had signed a joint communique calling for better relations, including 100 family reunions to be held August 15-18.

Monday's agreement was signed by veteran diplomat Jon Kum-jin, a cabinet-level official from North Korea, and the South's Unification Minister Park Jae-kyu.

''We agreed on so many things at this meeting,'' Mr Jon told his South Korean counterpart. ''This is a very good start. Let's do our best ...to implement the joint communique.''

In essence, the two Koreas agreed to move ties forward by repairing a breakdown dating from the 1992 Basic Agreement on reconciliation and co-operation. This accord, expected to lead to permanent peace on the peninsula, was burdened by suspicions over Pyongyang's nuclear weapons plans.

A subtext of the talks is how the North has used a series of moves to help gain leverage in future meetings. Analysts said the imbalance in the status of officials from North and South reflects a pattern that could lead to the Kim Jong-il regime reaping real advantages.

The South's Mr Jon is a senior cabinet councillor - a non-ministerial rank.

Roh Jae-won, a former policy adviser to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said the mismatch was rare and a mini-victory for Pyongyang.

"By mismatching the ranking men, North Korea has caused the South to lose face," he said. "The South is making a big mistake in letting the North get away with these things."

The snub follows a pattern established when agreement for the inter-Korean summit was signed in Beijing in April. "The first time the North mismatched the ranking of officials, the South should have made clear that this would not be repeated," Mr Roh said.

A Foreign Ministry analyst said: "In North Korea's way of thinking, the world is now looking at Pyongyang as the real government which will rule a unified Korea."

The next round of ministerial talks is set for Pyongyang on August 29 through 31.