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Bankbooks at Kaesong: Furor starts to subside

Sept 21,2006
The “scandal” over Woori Bank accounts given to a North Korean entity seemed to lose considerable steam late Wednesday night and yesterday, when government documents and explanations by officials clarified, at least partly, the ownership of the accounts and their purpose.
In its late city edition yesterday morning, the JoongAng Ilbo reported that a letter in March from the Unification Ministry to Woori Bank, which allowed a North Korean agency to open an account at Woori’s Kaesong branch, was less incriminating than it appeared. The document was in response to a letter from the bank asking if Woori was within the law by having opened two bank accounts for the agency in late 2004.
The owner of the accounts was the Kaesong Industrial District Management Committee; it is headed by a South Korean and has members from both countries. Two additional accounts were opened last year.
Oh Seung-wuk, Woori’s public relations manager, told the JoongAng Daily yesterday that the accounts were controlled by the South Korean members of the committee and were used to channel South Korean workers’ salaries and wages payable to North Korean workers at the industrial complex into their paychecks. He said that only South Korean committee members had access to the accounts.
He also said the bank had sought the ministry’s advice before authorizing the first two accounts, and sought a written confirmation last March. The ministry’s reply to that written request was the document produced by a Grand National Party lawmaker, Kwon Young-se, Wednesday.
But the ministry apparently did try to use its influence in a related but separate matter; other documents provided by Representative Kwon showed that it pressed the bank to allow the North Korean General Bureau of Special Zone Development, which oversees Pyongyang’s capitalist experiments in operating special economic zones, to open other accounts. Woori Bank, supported by the finance and foreign ministries and the National Intelligence Service, objected strongly and prevailed at a meeting in Seoul on March 7.
The issue of “unauthorized transfers” to North Korea flared up partly because of new sensitivity to bank accounts opened by the communist country in the wake of U.S. attempts to limit its ability to finance its weapons and illicit product trade. Earlier accusations said Woori Bank had been involved in $2.37 million in “unauthorized” transfers to Kaesong.
Technically at least, the Woori transfers were indeed “unauthorized” at the time; the Bank of Korea had not been informed of them. In July, the administration agreed to waive the reporting requirement for South Korean investors in the Kaesong project.
The Finance Ministry said the waiver was justified because the purpose of the transactions was clearly documented elsewhere and the transactions themselves were transparent.
A Unification Ministry official also defended the transfers yesterday, saying they were within the bounds of an approved inter-Korean cooperation project, the industrial complex operations.
As the controversy flared yesterday, the unification minister, Lee Jong-seok, said his office had acted properly. “The Kaesong Industrial District Development Committee is a North Korean entity by legal definition, but South Koreans manage it,” he told reporters. “It was formed for the convenience of our companies, so the government allowed the opening of bank accounts.”
He also said international sanctions on North Korea did not exist when the accounts were opened, adding, “It is inappropriate to raise issues against a matter of the past with the view of the present.”
He apologized, however, for the fact that transfers had been made for over a year in violation of the foreign remittance laws.


by Ser Myo-ja


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