June 4, 2006

Rail links focus of fresh inter-Korea economic talks

By Lee Jae-won

SOGWIPO, South Korea (Reuters) - South Korea urged the
North on Saturday to reverse its decision to scrap test runs of
trains across the heavily militarized border, officials said.

Economic officials from the two Koreas also discussed
requests for Southern aid to help the North's poor industrial
and mining sectors, but Seoul did not immediately agree while
talks on the rail link continued, a South Korean official said.

North Korea called off the test runs just a day before they
were to have taken place on May 25, triggering an exchange of
harsh words. Each side blamed the other for scuttling the plan.

"We urged a prompt undertaking of test train runs and the
opening of the railways," the South Korean official, Kim
Chun-sik, told reporters after Sunday's first formal session on
the southern resort island of Cheju.

South Korea expressed "strong regret" that the North had
unilaterally put off the test runs, he said.

While Pyongyang initially blamed Seoul for cancellation of
the plan, its representatives at the Cheju talks did not repeat
the strong comments that had appeared in official media and did
not appear to want to engage in fingerpointing, Kim said.

The train runs would have been a deeply symbolic step in
generally warming ties between the two Koreas. The last train
ran across the border 55 years ago during the Korean War,
carrying wounded soldiers and refugees to the South.

South and North Korea remain technically at war because the
1953 truce that halted the conflict never gave way to a full
peace treaty. Military tension remains high despite warming
commercial and political ties in recent years.

The North Korean delegation arrived on Cheju on Saturday
for the four days of meetings.

The talks follow remarks by South Korean President Roh
Moo-hyun, who said Seoul was willing to make "many concessions"
and give "unconditional assistance" to the North to speed up
progress in ties with the communist neighbor.

On Saturday North Korea asked the South to build fertilizer
plants in the North, the South Korean official said.

While North Korea has pursued a nuclear weapons program and
says it has a missile stockpile, it cannot feed its 23 million
people. Aid workers say it lacks resources to make fertilizer.

Seoul has been providing it with 300,000 to 350,000 tonnes
of fertiliser each year on top of 400,000 to 500,000 tonnes of

North Korea repeated a request, first made last year, for
raw materials needed to make clothing and shoes and investment
in its mining sectors, the official said.

For more than six months now, North Korea has boycotted
six-country nuclear talks aimed at devising a massive aid
package and improving diplomatic ties for the North in return
for a promise to end its weapons programs.

(Additional reporting by Jack Kim in Seoul)