[Viewpoint]Northern rushInter-Korean economic cooperation is speeding up amid the confusion of the presidential election.
In continuation of the inter-Korean summit talks in October and the prime ministers’ meeting in November, a joint economic cooperation committee meeting headed by vice prime ministers of the South and the North was held early this month. This is the busiest schedule in the more than 20-year-long history of inter-Korean economic cooperation. Meetings of four sub-committees ― on shipbuilding and maritime transportation, the Kaesong Industrial Complex, agriculture and fisheries, welfare, medicine and environment ― will be held this month as well. And the government will soon send inspection teams to the North’s Dancheon mines and Anbyeon shipbuilding complex.
Though there is criticism against the president for making agreements on large projects with the North near the end of his term, it is hard to say that the agreements he concluded during the inter-Korean summit are bad. They are projects that should be implemented for the development of inter-Korean economic cooperation.
What really matters is not the timing, but how it is pursued. Making an agreement first without knowing all the relevant matters is not right; it is like putting the cart before the horse. This will naturally result in unnecessary costs.
In fact, we do not know much about the North Korean economy, because Pyongyang has not released economic statistics since the mid-1960s. Almost all statistics on the North Korean economy are nothing but estimates made by sources outside of North Korea. The numbers cannot be precise.
We do not even know the per capita income of North Korea, a basic statistical indicator of a country’s economy. Nor do we know North Korea’s total population.
They say that the Kaesong Industrial Complex is being promoted for the purpose of utilizing the labor force there, but it is being pursued without even knowing the population of Kaesong. The head of the management committee at the Kaesong Industrial Complex says it is 160,000, and a former unification minister says it is 200,000. Wikipedia says it is 100,000, and Encyclopedia Britannica gives 360,000. It’s not right that an agreement on the first-stage development of the Kaesong Industrial Complex was made without even confirming the population of Kaesong.
In order to complete the first-stage development of the complex, it is necessary to employ 100,000 North Korean workers there, but it is not possible to recruit that number of laborers in Kaesong, even if we use as a base the largest estimate of the population, 360,000. The number of people who can work, excluding children, the elderly, students and housewives, will be less than 200,000, and some of these people would already have jobs, considering the nature of the North Korean system. Therefore, it is not possible to secure 100,000 workers unless they close down more than half of the factories and companies in Kaesong.
If more workers were to be recruited from other areas, it would be necessary to provide them with facilities such as housing and schools, but there are no such plans so far. There is also no possibility that North Korea, which suffers from acute economic difficulties, will offer to cover the costs. Since the South has agreed, from the president to the vice minister, on the project, there is no other way for the South but to push ahead using government funds ― in other words, taxpayers’ money.
The same could be said of the agreement to create a shipbuilding complex in Anbyeon. No South Korean company has ever visited Anbyeon. Despite the circumstances, an agreement was reached at the summit meeting and an on-the-spot investigation team is to be dispatched belatedly.
There will be no alternative but to go ahead with the project, even if the investigation shows no economic viability, because it is a project that was agreed between the leaders of the South and the North. For that matter, nobody from here has been to Haeju, either.
On-the-spot inspection of the Gyeongeui railway line for repair and restoration started yesterday. The inspection is scheduled to be carried out for one week, and the repair work is planned to start at the beginning of next year. The railway investigation, between the estuary of the Tumen River and Pyongyang, which was carried out by Russia in 2001, took one month and around 200 specialists. In that instance, it was concluded that parts of the line there were unsalvageable.
Inter-Korean economic cooperation need not be promoted in haste. It has to be pursued properly, even if it takes a little longer. If it was unavoidable for the government to enter an agreement first, it should at least carry out a thorough investigation before launching any projects.
But President Roh seems to want to launch as many inter-Korean cooperation projects before the end of his term as possible. This rush makes my heart feel heavy. I think there are procedures that should be followed in all important projects and we should be more circumspect.
*The writer is a professor of North Korean studies at Ewha Womans University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Jo Dong-ho