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NKorea pushes again for talks on stalled tours

By Hyung-jin Kim

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Nov. 18 2010 3:05 a.m. MST

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea pushed again Thursday for talks on resuming a joint tourism project with South Korea, expressing regret over Seoul's rebuff of its earlier dialogue offer.

South Korea said Wednesday that before any discussions could take place, Pyongyang must first return South Korean-owned buildings that were confiscated at North Korea's scenic Diamond Mountain resort.

The resort tours, which began in 1998, were a rare source of hard currency for the impoverished North, which is now looking to transfer power from leader Kim Jong Il to his youngest son at a time of economic hardship.

The joint tour program has been stalled since the 2008 shooting death of a South Korean tourist by a North Korean guard near the resort.

The North's state media said Thursday that Pyongyang wants to discuss the tours next week, when Red Cross officials from the two rivals hold talks on a program to reunite families separated by the Korean War. The North said it was open to resolving the standoff over the seized South Korean-owned buildings.

Seoul's Unification Ministry didn't immediately respond to the North's offer.

Despite its renewed calls for talks and its offer to resolve the property issue, Pyongyang's official Korean Central News Agency still expressed "great regret" over Seoul's demand for the buildings' return. It lashed out at South Korea for what it called "groundlessly" objecting to the North's seizures.

Paik Hak-soon, an analyst at the private Sejong Institute think tank near Seoul, said the North's dialogue offer is part of a "peace offensive." The North, he said, wants to make sure domestic affairs are stable, consolidate the Kim power transfer and get much-needed money from the resumption of the mountain tours.

The North's economy is suffering, and the country has relied on outside food aid to feed many of its 24 million people since the mid-1990s. A chronic food shortage in the North may have worsened following flooding this summer.

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