Keep the joint complex goingWhile ratcheting up tensions on the Korean Peninsula with wild rhetoric and military moves, North Korea took another dangerous and self-destructive action in cutting off the last symbol of cooperation with South Korea. Kim Yang-gon, secretary of the Central Committee of North Korea’s Workers’ Party, announced that Pyongyang will shut down the joint-venture industrial park in Kaesong and withdraw all North Korean employees from the complex the North has been jointly running with the South for nearly a decade. He said business will be suspended until Seoul changes its contentious attitude.
The senior party official criticized Seoul for undermining Pyongyang’s dignity with accusations that North Korea could take South Korea employees in the complex hostage and that it cannot close down the complex because it relies heavily on the revenue from the park amid economic strain from tougher international sanctions. Kim claimed that Pyongyang has nothing to lose from shutting down the operation because “South Korea benefited more from the joint-operation.”
As Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae pointed out, the complex has served as a tool for helping inter-Korean relations. Since opening in 2004, over 53,000 North Koreans are employed by 123 South Korean manufacturers there. Despite deteriorated inter-Korean relations, business in the park flourished over recent years.
The suspension of the Kaesong complex is the North’s most decisive action in its latest campaign to escalate regional tensions. Pyongyang temporarily blocked traffic to the complex after Seoul announced a set of sanctions upon determining a North Korean torpedo was behind the sinking of the Cheonan warship three years ago. But it kept the business going as the two Koreas had a tacit agreement to sustain the last symbol of economic exchanges.
But North Korea is threatening to sever the last connection with South Korea. It is making a serious mistake in using a lucrative business venture as a provocative instrument. All of its reasons do not justify the cause to shut down the complex. Its collapse would have huge economic, political, social and cultural repercussions, including on foreign investment in the North’s other free economic zones.
Pyongyang should withdraw its decision and normalize the business as it will lose all credibility as a business partner. Seoul also should send a strong message that it is committed to sustaining Kaesong. Economically, revenue from the complex is not large, but the business is symbolic for inter-Korean cooperation over the long haul. Despite all the differences, both Koreas must get it running again.