Our Kaesong dilemmaNorth Korea is once again using the Kaesong Industrial Complex to pressure South Korea.
Last July, shortly after a South Korean tourist was shot dead at Mount Kumgang, North Korea delayed approval for South Koreans traveling to Kaesong and the industrial complex, effectively blocking their entry. At the time, the North said that the action was done in response to the South’s having delayed delivery of equipment needed for construction of a new military communications channel, which the South had withheld because of the Mount Kumgang incident. Since then, passage to and from the industrial complex and tourism sites in Kaesong has tightened considerably.
Last November, as we co-sponsored the United Nations resolution on North Korea’s human rights situation and South Korean civic groups sent up propaganda leaflets northward across the border, the North halted tourism to Kaesong and reduced the number of workers permitted to be stationed within the Kaesong Industrial Complex.
On Friday, Pyongyang again barred workers from entering the industrial complex and stranded those who were supposed to return home to South Korea, citing its opposition to a South Korea?United States joint military exercise. It is worth noting that North Korea allowed a small group to cross, including someone who was to be wed and foreigners, including someone who was sick, indicating that the North wanted to avoid an international outcry or further criticism about its human rights.
As we witness this series of events, North Korea’s regard for the Kaesong complex becomes clear: Pyongyang has little interest in its success. Even though nearly 40,000 North Korean workers are employed in the industrial complex and the income the North is able to earn through the Kaesong and Kumgang projects exceeds $60 million, North Korea seems to think it can give up these projects at any time.
While North Korea’s stance is clear, ours is much more complex. When South and North are on good terms, the Kaesong Industrial Complex has political and economic significance. However, when inter-Korean relations deteriorate, the Kaesong issue becomes difficult to navigate. It’s hard to imagine giving up the industrial complex into which we have poured an enormous amount of effort and funding; nor do we want to be dragged along by the North. If inter-Korean relations continue to deteriorate in this way, a decision will have to be made. Even if inter-Korean relations improve, we will have to think seriously about whether the Kaesong complex should be kept. In any case, North Korea’s actions are beyond the pale.