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South asks North to permit visits to Kaesong

Oct 27,2017
Seoul has asked Pyongyang to let South Korean businessmen who own factories in the Kaesong Industrial Complex visit their facilities after North Korea admitted to using them without their consent.

The call, relayed Tuesday by Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon, came nearly two weeks after a group of local CEOs who invested in the inter-Korean venture asked the South Korean government to approve their visit to the North Korean border town. South Korean nationals need government approval to contact anyone in the North or visit the country.

The Unification Ministry, which handles South-North relations, had said it will review the “overall circumstances” of the application, but stressed that Pyongyang will have to agree and guarantee the visitors’ safety.

The Unification Ministry has neither confirmed nor denied Radio Free Asia’s report that North Korea has been secretly running 19 South Korean-owned clothing factories in the industrial park without informing Seoul, but admitted to having witnessed streetlights on at night and shuttle buses moving about.

“As Seoul has mentioned numerous times,” said Cho, “if North Korea were actually operating the factories, it wouldn’t be right because [South Korean] companies made investments trusting the Kaesong Industrial Zone Support Act and Agreement on Investment Protection between the South and the North.”

Cho added, “The government hereby requests that North Korea take action regarding the visit [to Kaesong], including guaranteeing their safety.”

Cho made clear that the call was “irrelevant” to the official reopening of the complex, saying it will have to be “dealt with step by step as the North Korea nuclear crisis enters the phase of being solved.”

Pyongyang hasn’t reacted to Seoul’s request, but said on Oct. 6 via Uriminzokkiri, a North Korean propaganda website, that it holds absolute sovereignty over the Kaesong Industrial Complex and therefore “no one else has the right to tell us what to do.”

It added, “No matter how much the United States and its subordinates bark at us with tougher sanctions, they will never impede our mighty step forward, and the factories will only run with much more vigor.”

Hinting at Seoul’s quandary, a senior Unification Ministry official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said there was “basically nothing” Seoul could do about Kaesong other than pressing North Korea to live up to the bilateral agreements.

The Kaesong complex, which opened in late 2004, was the last significant vestige of South-North business cooperation before Seoul announced on Feb. 10, 2016, that it would suspend operations, following North Korea’s nuclear test and a subsequent missile test earlier that year.

One day later, the North announced it would freeze all South Korean assets there, sever all communication channels across the border, shut down the only highway that linked the two Koreas and place the Kaesong park under military control.

BY LEE SUNG-EUN [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]