Fate of Kaesong hangs in balance with tension

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Fate of Kaesong hangs in balance with tension

Amid escalating tension between the two Koreas, the fate of the Kaesong Industrial Complex is once again in jeopardy.

Analysts and government officials expressed concern yesterday that it would be impossible to keep the project going if North Korea stages another provocation or retaliates for yesterday’s live-fire drill.

The industrial complex, which marries North Korean labor and South Korean capital and management, began in December 2004. After other economic projects started between the two Koreas during the Sunshine Policy days were shut down, the industrial park in the North Korean border city of Kaesong was the last remaining symbol of inter-Korean reconciliation.

The government is paying special attention to the safety of South Korean workers at 120 companies in Kaesong. The Unification Ministry did not authorize any South Korean workers to cross the border to the industrial complex yesterday. While 614 were scheduled to enter the North, 421 were to return yesterday. With no new authorized entry, the number of South Koreans working in North Korea went down to 311, 297 are in Kaesong and 14 at the barely functioning Mount Kumgang resort. On Nov. 24, the day after the North’s shelling on the Yeonpyeong, the number of South Koreans in the industrial complex was cut from about 800 to 400.

The ministry said travel to Kaesong today will depend on the North’s military movements and any threats to the South.

The possibility of the North holding South Korean workers in Kaesong hostage has long been a taboo subject with Seoul officials. But sources said an emergency rescue plan has been established in cooperation with the U.S. Forces Korea.

Despite its armed provocations this year, there are no signs that the North will give up the lucrative project. The number of North Koreans working in the Kaesong Industrial Complex has been going up steadily. In March, 42,397 North Koreans were working in Kaesong, which increased to 44,958 in October. Even after the Yeongpyeong attack, the number increased by 700, a South Korean official in charge of the project said, adding that more than 45,000 North Koreans - the highest ever - are working in Kaesong. Production for October also went up 10 percent from that of the previous month, he said.

“Taking into account the workers’ families, the Kaesong Industrial Complex feeds more than 100,000 North Koreans,” a Seoul official said. “It is one of the few remaining ways through which the North can earn foreign currency.”

By Lee Young-jong, Ser Myo-ja [myoja@joongang.co.kr]
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