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Kaesong factory owners discuss trip to U.S.

June 19,2019
A delegation of South Korean owners of factories at the Kaesong Industrial Complex on Tuesday discussed the results of their trip to the United States last week, where they attempted to inform U.S. policymakers and opinion leaders about the inter-Korean initiative’s role in contributing to peace.

In a press conference at a restaurant in central Seoul, Corporate Association of Gaeseong Industrial Complex Chairman Jeong Ki-seop, who headed the 11-member delegation, said the group was able to fulfill its primary purpose of informing officials, lawmakers and academics about the industrial park’s role in fostering peace on the Korean Peninsula.

“As people who have actually worked at the Kaesong Industrial Complex and have seen, heard and known about it, we tried out best to explain [its function] to the U.S. Congress, State Department and think tank researchers, as well as Korean expatriates,” Jeong said. “In that respect, we are satisfied with achieving what we set out to do.”

After departing from Seoul on June 10, the group first met with U.S. House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific and Nonproliferation and its chairman, Rep. Brad Sherman. It presented Sherman with an overview of the Kaesong Industrial Complex and the situation of the South Korean businessmen who once operated factories there.

The delegation also led similar seminars at the U.S. Institute of Peace and Stimson Center, two major think tanks in Washington, and on Thursday met with officials of the U.S. State Department’s Korea Desk, such as acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Japan and Korea Marc Knapper.

Before returning to Korea on Saturday, the delegation also stopped in Los Angeles, where it held a press conference with local Korean-language newspapers and met Korean entrepreneurs in the United States.

Both Jeong and Kaesong Industrial District Foundation Chairman Kim Jin-hyang, another leader of the delegation, repeatedly reinforced the idea that the group’s original purpose with the visit was not to persuade U.S. officials to support restarting the shuttered economic project, but to explain the value of the complex as a peace-building medium.

Kim said he was taken aback at the lack of awareness among U.S. policymakers and experts on the Kaesong Industrial Complex in general, but also at the misunderstandings they had about the enterprise, which opened as one of the linchpins of inter-Korean economic cooperation in 2004.

Among the many misgivings U.S. leaders had on the joint project was the allegation that it was being used by Pyongyang as a channel to generate foreign currency, Kim said. The delegation explained that the monthly income received by North Korean workers at the complex, which ranged from around $60 to $150, fell short of the level necessary to feed a family of four, much less fund a nuclear weapons program, as alleged by some critics.

Kim went on to say that U.S. lawmakers of the Asia Pacific subcommittees were approachable in their attitudes toward the delegation’s explanations, but that both they and the State Department officials stressed that the North’s denuclearization must precede any resumption of inter-Korean economic projects, like the Kaesong Industrial Complex.

The delegation nonetheless said it could feel a sea change in the views of the United States on the issue, particularly if the problem of generating foreign currency for the North could be resolved.

“After our briefing, [Rep. Brad Sherman], who is conservative [on North Korea issues], even said that economic sanctions [on North Korea] may not be the solution to all problems, which gave us hope that there could be a shift in atmosphere [in the United States],” Kim said. “We returned pleased with the fact that we said all we could say, far more than the [South Korean] government would have.”

The businessmen also stressed that the South Korean government should have played a greater part in educating U.S. officials on Kaesong, since it was the government’s responsibility to persuade Washington to grant sanctions exemption for inter-Korean projects.

“I don’t know what the [South Korean] government thought, but the United States did not know about the size or location of the Kaesong Industrial Complex,” said another delegation member, Kim Hak-gwon. “If we had gone [to the United States] two or three years earlier and told them of our situation, and of how [Kaesong] changed in the last decade, maybe we wouldn’t be where we are now.”

Late last month, the group welcomed the Moon Jae-in administration’s decision to allow business owners to visit the equipment they left behind in their Kaesong factories when Seoul chose to withdraw from the complex in February 2016 in response to a North Korean nuclear test.

Pyongyang, however, has remained mum on the South’s request for the visit. The businessmen at Tuesday’s press conference also acknowledged the difficulty of carrying out such a visit amid the North’s current preoccupation with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s expected visit to the country on Thursday, though they said they hoped this would change in the near future.

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]