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The view from Kaesong

Reopening the inter-Korean industrial project to such a brutal and untrustworthy regime is too risky.
June 05,2017
It was windy and gray day in October 2008 when I arrived at the Kaesong Industrial Complex just 10 kilometers (6 miles) north of the Korean demilitarized zone. The park was surrounded by barren mountains, but the garment factory I visited was full of activity, with workers busy at their sewing machines. The inter-Korean industrial project had been open for four years, and I was among a group of colleagues pretending to be investors as part of an investigative report.

“I remember interviewing young stone-faced girls in rags for the job,” said one South Korean employer. “Now they worry about my health.” The North Korean workers wished the industrial complex could be entirely run by South Koreans. A driver of the commuting bus enthusiastically talked about the dramatic transformation on Kaesong residents’ lives after they started working at the industrial park.

The venture was the brainchild of Hyundai Group’s founder, Chung Ju-yung, who famously crossed the border with trucks loaded with 1,001 cows in 1998. The two governments agreed on the ambitious project to combine South Korean technology with North Korea’s cheap labor. The monthly paychecks, Choco Pie snacks and hot showers gave North Korean workers and their families the addictive taste of capitalism.

The complex opened in 2004 with 16 South Korean companies and 6,013 North Korean workers. Ten years later, it swelled to 124 companies and 56,320 employees. Despite the North Korean authorities’ rigid watch, the impact on society was not going to be small.

The symbol of what a union of two Koreas would look like did not please many in the international community. Despite international sanctions to stall and stop North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and missiles, South Korea wired $100 million each year to pay the wages of North Korean workers. Even though there was no proof that the money ended up in the military or weapons program, sanctions were imposed to stamp out even the slightest chance.

The industrial park remained open even after North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006 and the deadly attack on a South Korean naval ship in 2010. The project’s plug was finally pulled when North Korean leader Kim Jong-un carried out a fourth nuclear test in January 2016.

The new government under President Moo Jae-in wants to reopen the Kaesong complex if certain conditions are met. Moon Chung-in, the president’s adviser on unification, foreign affairs and security, made such a suggestion during an interview.

In a congratulatory message to the Jeju Forum for Peace and Prosperity, President Moon vowed to make the Korean Peninsula’s economy bloom after removing war risks by “stretching the miracle on the Han River [in Seoul] to the Taedong River [in Pyongyang].” He pledged to solve the nuclear issue through dialogue and push ahead with a vision to create a single Korean economic bloc that includes expansion of the Kaesong project.

Pyongyang responded to the new South Korean president’s overtures with three missile launches. Seoul “condemned” the actions in rhetoric but nevertheless proposed to leave the dialogue option open. After disapprovingly watching Seoul’s moves, Washington officials warned that reopening the Kaesong Industrial Complex would be a violation of UN Security Council resolutions and the U.S. government on June 1 issued its toughest-yet independent sanctions on North Korea.

The Seoul government maintains it can tackle the North Korean nuclear problem and other issues involving the Korean Peninsula once it secures dialogue with Pyongyang. The logic makes sense. But the problem is that Pyongyang has zero intention of folding its missile and nuclear ambitions. Moreover, its weapons program is fast advancing and does not leave much time for action to stop Pyongyang from perfecting it. Moon’s liberal government could make a policy miscalculation by doing the opposite of the previous two conservative administrations while blaming the nine-year stalemate on his predecessors’ rigid North Korea policies.

Even if the two Koreas return to talks, Seoul must not forget the hard-learned lessons from 20 years of attempts to denuclearize North Korea. Seoul became a loner among global powers, and Pyongyang never proved to be faithful.

Aside from military provocations, North Korea effectively took South Korean workers hostage at the Kaesong Industrial Complex when its fate was in limbo for 137 days. It assassinated the half brother of ruler Kim Jong-un at an airport in Malaysia and then forced Malaysian authorities to hand over the body by preventing Malaysian citizens in North Korea from leaving. Offering economic relief by reopening the inter-Korean industrial project to such a brutal and untrustworthy regime is too risky.

JoongAng Ilbo, June 3, Page 24

*The author is a senior writer on diplomacy and security at the JoongAng Ilbo.

Kim Su-jung