[Viewpoint] It’s time to close Kaesong complexProtecting the people’s lives and property is a nation’s top priority. The people pay taxes and serve in the military to support this role. A government that fails to fulfill its role loses its purpose.
In this regard, we ask if the government has a contingency plan for the Kaesong Industrial Complex where 121 South Korean companies currently operate. The number of South Koreans working there reached 936 last year, but has since halved to 404 in the wake of the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong attacks this year. Outgoing Defense Minister Kim Tae-young told lawmakers that North Korea may attempt another military provocation. Then we may lose our patience altogether and retaliate in force. What would happen to our people in Kaesong? Won’t they be used as hostages or human shields? The owners would lose their properties, but their workers would have their lives at stake.
When Yeonpyeong Island came under attack, the Philippine government consulted with Japan about evacuating Philippine nationals in South Korea. Manila decided to stop sending workers here for the time being. We would have taken similar actions to protect our nationals in a conflict zone. But why are our workers still in an enemy state that declares itself on the brink of war? Do we have a rescue operation prepared in case an emergency situation occurs? Or are we risking the lives of our nationals for the sake of economic interests?
The Kaesong Industrial Complex is the most prominent of inter-Korean ventures. Despite the political and military standoff, cumulative revenue from industrial activities there exceeded $1 billion as of September. Many say we should maintain our stake. Once we leave, it would be hard to go back, and it could send the wrong message that we want an all-out war. Chinese funds could quickly replace our investments, and Beijing would further consolidate its influence over the North Korean economy. But the time has come for us to consider whether we have overestimated the importance of the effects of the Kaesong joint venture.
In establishing the industrial complex, which is just an hour’s drive from Seoul, we had hoped to ease tensions on the border. But the North’s fierce attack on a frontline island proves we have been wrong. The goal of improving the lives of North Koreans is also questionable. The salaries we pay to the North Korean workers first go to the North Korean authorities. The money could be used to support the military buildup, not the workers’ households for all we know. Our original goals have gone off target, and the complex has instead become a bargaining chip in negotiating with the Pyongyang regime. The argument that the joint venture could help reduce future unification costs is no longer effective. We also cannot demand international sanctions while we go on supplying money and products to operate businesses there.
We can hardly expect to preach the benefits of a market economy with our venture there. North Koreans merely assemble the parts we supply. Selling the products is up to South Korean companies. The North Korean regime has nothing to lose. In fact, the Chinese would do a better job in teaching economic lessons to a people accustomed to rigid control.
We had been naïve to expect that North Koreans would not dare attack us if we had a financial stake in their country. Former President Kim Daejung, after his historic first summit with North Korea, declared that there would be no more war in this country. His government was more than generous to North Korea. But Pyongyang two years later triggered a deadly skirmish near the maritime border. North Koreans, who always take our money, act as if they are the creditor. The cards that our government should have kept close to its chest were clearly seen by the North Koreans as we fought among ourselves over ideological differences. The North’s “military first” ideology literally means the military comes before the economy. We have been encouraging North Korea’s predatory economic practice.
The Song Dynasty (960-1270) was the richest period in Chinese history. Art, philosophy and technology flourished during this era, giving birth to renowned names like Cheng Yi and Zhu Xi. The world’s greatest inventions like gunpowder, the compass and the printing press were developed during this period. The dynasty opened its sea borders and developed international trade. The people indulged in festivals and entertainment. The state, which was endlessly threatened by predators, had a strong military force. But the military served as a stepping stone for fame rather than for combat. In a standoff with a 200,000- man army against an enemy force of 60,000, it offered to buy its way out of a war. As a result, the state went broke by trying to protect its borders with donations to neighboring states.
Predators tend to demand more. We must sincerely reconsider our North Korean policy — free of ideological and political interests and illusions.
*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Kim Jin-kook