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First Visit By U.S. Official To Industrial Park In North Korea

Kathleen Stephens, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state, became the only senior U.S. official ever to visit the zone in Kaesong just inside North Korea's border, the U.S. embassy said.

"It is an opportunity for her as the number two in the State Department to be able to see at first hand the Kaesong Industrial Zone," embassy spokesman Robert Ogburn said. Washington has so far been lukewarm about Kaesong and other North-South cooperation projects, while focusing instead on applying pressure on North Korea to scrap its nuclear weapons. South Korean officials insisted the U.S. should include goods produced at the complex in a U.S.-South Korea free trade agreement (FTA).

FTA talks started on June 5 and Stephens discussed the issue during her meetings with South Korean officials. The U. S. is reluctant to expand the accord to include the Kaesong zone, a flagship project for inter-Korean cooperation that also illustrates differences between Washington and Seoul on how to handle the communist state.

While Seoul has been forging ahead with reconciliation and economic exchanges, Washington has taken a harder line over North Korea's nuclear weapons program.

The dispute escalated in April when U.S. envoy Jay Lefkowitz expressed concern about possible labor abuses at Kaesong and unmonitored aid to the Stalinist nation without human rights conditions improving there. South Korean officials insisted workers in Kaesong were paid much more than in other parts of North Korea.

Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2006

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