By turning away South Korean officials and industry groups from a business forum, impoverished North Korea has fumbled a chance to win investment from its rich neighbor, diplomats said Monday.
South Korea has threatened to boycott the Sept. 13-15 forum in Rajin-Sonbong, an area along the border with China and Russia where Pyongyang is encouraging foreigners to set up factories, so far with little success.Seoul is best placed to help Pyongyang make a go of the zone, but now feels snubbed because its officials were rejected from the conference.
On Monday, Pyongyang sent five more invitations to South Korean business executives, bringing the total number to 25, a National Unification Ministry official said.
But he said Seoul was insisting all 53 places originally requested be accepted.
''The government is still undecided on whether to send delegates. We are waiting for an answer to our call to accept our applications,'' the official said.
Western diplomats, meanwhile, said Pyongyang had wasted a golden opportunity to attract desperately needed investment.
''The sheer, blind incompetence is just staggering,'' one diplomat said, referring to North Korea's decision.
''It's going to leave a very sour taste for a long time.''
Japanese, Chinese and U.S. officials will send representatives to the conference, which is backed by the United Nations.
Journalists from those countries are also attending.
But North Korea has barred South Korean reporters along with the heads of all but one trade and industry group that applied.
The diplomat, who closely tracks North Korea, said Pyongyang's exclusion of Seoul officials who manage trade and investment with the North would be interpreted by southern businessmen as more evidence of an official capriciousness that already makes them nervous.
''This was a great opportunity to get something going on Rajin-Sonbong,'' he said. ''It's a sad, lost opportunity.''
On Sunday, South Korea demanded that North Korea accept all 53 applications in a note delivered through the United Nations Development Program, one of the sponsors of the forum along with the United Nations Industrial Development Organization.
North Korean media on Monday made no mention of the dispute.
Its newspapers were filled with editorials celebrating the 48th anniversary of the founding of the communist state by the late Kim Il Sung.
Michael Underdown, a U.N. official in Beijing associated with the Rajin-Sonbong project, said North Korea had to prune the invitation list because of the lack of accommodation.
He said 762 people had applied to attend. ''But due to a shortage of accommodation, not everybody has been issued with invitation letters.''
Kim Il Sung set up the zone before he died in 1994, and foreign investment laws were also approved.
But so far it has attracted only one Western investor - a Swede - and a Chinese shipping company.