Kim Jong-un in a tight spot after Kaesong move

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Kim Jong-un in a tight spot after Kaesong move

President Park Geun-hye’s decision to pull all South Korean workers from the Kaesong Industrial Complex has put the North’s leader Kim Jong-un in a difficult position over how to proceed with the escalating tension related to what is seen as the last symbol of inter-Korean cooperation.

Kim’s first dilemma is that while Pyongyang first initiated the shutdown by withdrawing 53,000 North Korean workers from the joint industrial complex, it puts the blame on Seoul.

“Although we cherish the Kaesong Industrial Complex as our precious child born of the June 15 [North-South Joint Declaration of 2000], we do not have any intentions to continue doing favors for those who do not know the meaning of virtue and repay kindness with betrayal,” a spokesman for the North’s General Bureau for the Special Zone Development Guidance in charge of Kaesong operations stated Saturday.

This came in response to Seoul’s order on Friday to evacuate all South Korean workers from the complex by yesterday, and the spokesman implied that the South is to blame for the shut down. The bureau added, however, that “it’s not like the industrial complex has run out of food” or that “there were no proposals for dialogue whatsoever.”

President Park proposed negotiations about Kaesong on April 11, which Pyongyang rejected. Park emphasized that as investment is about trust, if the North breaks international regulations and promises by suspending Kaesong, no country will want to invest in it.

“In order to show fierceness in the early stages, North Korea ordered the evacuation of workers and restricted traffic at a quicker speed than expected, destroying chances for dialogue on the Kaesong Industrial Complex issue,” said Hwang Ji-hwan, an international relations professor at the University of Seoul.

The second dilemma for the North is determining how to respond to complaints from workers and residents of Kaesong. Attempts to placate the disgruntled Kaesong residents by telling them that the shutdown is only temporary only fueled further disgruntlement about the situation. North Korean defectors and organizations say that discontent is spreading among Kaesong residents and workers. Complaints such as “The industrial complex is not some toy” and “It is only becoming more difficult to eat and live for the people of Kaesong” have grown rampant, according to the reports.

In 2012, the average monthly wage of North Korean workers was $134, and the regime earned about $80 million in total from Kaesong. A final dilemma for North Korea is the current internal strife regarding who is responsible for the situation in Kaesong. Some leaders have been opposed to withdrawing from Kaesong, especially as the North’s leader Kim Jong-il and the South’s President Kim Dae-jung agreed to the joint complex in a 2000 summit and Kim had used Kaesong as a negotiating card over the years.

“You cannot exclude the possibility of an upsurge in internal strife between the military hardliners who had beef with the Kaesong Industrial Complex and the more moderate United Front Department [of the ruling Workers’ Party of North Korea],” said Yoo Ho-yeol, a North Korean studies professor at Korea University, adding that political tension resulting from Kaesong could lead to instability in North Korea. Furthermore, Pyongyang is reportedly not pleased with the first battle of wills with the new South Korean administration.

Yoo analyzed that Pyongyang tried to pressure the South over Kaesong as a way to avoid dialogue and instead “was completely pushed back in a battle of wills with President Park.”

“North Korea will await a pretext to revive the Kaesong complex depending on the situation such as a special envoy from China or improvement in relations with Washington,” said Kim Yong-hyun, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University.



By Jung Won-yeob, Sarah Kim [sarahkim@joongang.co.kr]

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