Condemn the Kaesong shut downThe owners of the companies in the Kaesong Industrial Complex met with the Democratic United Party leaders at the National Assembly on April 11. One said, “The employees in Kaesong said that they had nothing to eat, and North Koreans brought them instant noodles in the morning.” While Pyongyang threatens to shut down the industrial complex and elevates tensions on the Korean Peninsula, it seems that the Korean sentiment to make sure no one goes hungry still lives on.
However, the industrial complex issue is not so simple. It has two main problems. The existence of the industrial complex serves as a buffer between the South and the North. The Kaesong-Munsan Axis connecting the Kaesong Industrial Complex and Seoul was the route that the North Korean Army’s Sixth Division took when their Soviet T-34 tanks advanced southward 63 years ago. One thousand South Koreans stay in the North and 53,000 North Korean laborers are hired by South Korean companies, and the symbolic impact is to quietly prove the stability of the Korean Peninsula domestically and internationally. The Democratic Party considers the industrial complex one of their “accomplishments.”
At the same time, the industrial complex is an example of psychological warfare against the North by showing off the superiority of the South Korean system. While the North Korean workers in the complex are faithful to the party, they are ultimately exposed to the more advanced and prosperous South Korean capitalism. During the Roh Moo-hyun administration, some companies experienced a sort of management-labor conflict. Bathroom supplies were stolen, so South Korean managers decided to reduce the supplies and cut down on chocolate cakes offered as snacks. Consequently, the North Korean supervisors protested, since consumer goods and chocolate cakes provide extra income in the North.
Nevertheless, light always brings shadow. The moment Pyongyang makes an unreasonable threat, the industrial complex becomes an object of worry. When North Korea threatens to block traffic in and out of the complex, the safety of South Koreans is in danger. Even if the government wants to make a strong response toward the North, the complex makes its options more limited. It could also be exploited as a justification for a “Korean discount” internationally. Especially when the international community decides to impose sanctions against the North for nuclear and missile development, Seoul may find itself in an awkward position if Pyongyang decides to shut down the industrial complex.
In peaceful times, the industrial complex is a win-win for both Koreas. But if Pyongyang changes its mind, it can become a trigger anytime. There is no option other than clearly emphasizing the separation of economy and politics and making sure the complex is not affected by political issues. At this juncture, what we can do domestically is to prevent internal discord over the industrial complex. The progressives need to strongly criticize the North’s threat to shut down Kaesong and must not blur the point by mentioning mutual responsibility. Such a move will only benefit the North and infuriate the conservatives. It is a position the Democratic United Party, the largest opposition, needs to keep in mind.
*The author is a deputy political and international news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Chae Byeong-geon