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N Korea at crossroads

Moon to bring South Korean businesses to summit with Kim

Samsung subdued about projects in the North but KT and Lotte dive in

South Korean President Moon Jae-in, right, is set to meet with North Korea's Kim Jong Un on Tuesday. Moon is to bring a business delegation with him.    © KCNA via Reuters

SEOUL -- South Korean President Moon Jae-in is leading a business delegation to the North on Tuesday in his third meeting with Kim Jong Un in the hopes of encouraging greater economic cooperation and easing military tensions.

The presidential Blue House said it was too early to talk about specific business plans, but it did not hide its ambitions to start projects with Pyongyang. The two Koreas launched a liaison office at the northern border city of Kaesong earlier this month, as relations on the peninsula improve.

But some businesses are still unwilling to commit to any cooperation with the North. Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong, for one, is in dilemma.

The South Korean government wants the country's largest conglomerate to play a bigger role in improving economic ties with the North but Samsung is wary of upsetting the U.S. which has led international sanctions on the country. America is Samsung's biggest market for its Galaxy smartphones and home appliances.

"We are just watching carefully the developments in North Korea. It is too early to say something about economic cooperation," said an executive at the company who did not want to be named.

Lee is scheduled to meet North Korean Vice Premier Ri Ryong Nam who is in charge of the country's economic matters Tuesday afternoon, together with other South Korean business leaders, including SK Chairman Chey Tae-won, LG Chairman Koo Kwang-mo and Hyundai Motor Group Vice Chairman Kim Yong-hwan.

They are expected to discuss potential investments in the North, if the UN lifts sanctions on the country.

Despite its reticence, Samsung isn't new to North Korea. It assembled its televisions in Pyongyang for a decade from 2000 but was forced to withdraw from the country after the North allegedly sank a South Korean warship, killing 46 servicemen.

In contrast, Lotte and KT have been eager to take opportunities offered in North Korea, launching internal groups to focus on projects there. Lotte is interested in developing resorts and hotels in the North while KT wants to set up telecommunications infrastructure there.

Tuesday will mark the first visit by a member of Samsung's owner family to North Korea. In the inter-Korean summits in Pyongyang in 2000 and 2007, Samsung Electronics sent its then-Vice Chairman Yun Jong-yong to accompany South Korean leaders Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, respectively.

Moon's agenda for the three-day visit will also include talks with Kim Jong Un to ease military tensions and to facilitate denuclearization talks between Washington and Pyongyang.

"First, it is to resolve tensions, military conflicts and fear of war between South and North Korea. Second, it is to stimulate North Korea-U.S. talks for denuclearization," said Moon in his meeting with senior secretaries.

Moon said that he wants to talk with Kim candidly and narrow gaps between the U.S. and North Korea. Washington has said that Pyongyang must do more to denuclearize while the North wants the U.S. to first declare the end of the Korean War.

Lee Jae-min, a professor of international trade at Seoul National University's law school said, "I think South Korean business leaders are trying to present a roadshow for North Korea, promising that they could take these benefits if they accept conditions from the U.S. and South Korea." 

But he pointed out that any real change is unlikely to come soon.

"They may discuss serious economic projects but they could be only possible when the sanctions are lifted."

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