Whose war of nerves?

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Whose war of nerves?

We were startled by the swift and decisive action by President Park Geun-hye. We expected a rhetorical warning from Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae in his statement after attending an emergency foreign affairs and security meeting chaired by the president. But Ryoo announced that Seoul would pull out all remaining employees from the Kaesong Industrial Complex, possibly putting an end to the 10-year-old manufacturing joint-venture between the two Koreas.

The announcement was more or less an order for all South Korean nationals to leave their workplaces in Kaesong and return home. The industrial zone would turn into an actual ghost city if Seoul pulls the plug on electricity and water supplies, which would also lead to a final end to the last remaining symbol of inter-Korean economic cooperation.

The government gave Pyongyang one day to consider a dialogue to resolve the impasse over the industrial park where business has been suspended for a month after North Korea withdrew its workers. Seoul warned it would take a “grave” action if Pyongyang did not respond to its proposal within a day.

It was a polite but unequivocal ultimatum. Unsurprisingly, North Korea vehemently turned down the invitation to negotiate. The Park administration moved fast and told South Korean workers to pack and leave the industrial complex. Both Koreas played their cards without any holds barred, betting all-in as if it were a game of chicken. No room was left for strategic maneuvering and stubbornness was at a premium in such a war of nerves.

Both Koreas are accusing each other for the dire possibility of a breakdown in the only surviving - and lucrative for both sides - joint-venture. North Korea suspended operations in early April by pulling out its entire 53,000-strong workforce. It blocked South Korean workers’ and owners’ entry into the factory city near the border.

Pyongyang blamed the South Korean government and media for jeopardizing business at the industrial park with comments and innuendo insulting its “supreme dignity.” But it is Pyongyang that brought tensions to the worst postwar level with menacing state-of-war rhetoric and activities. It also banned entries of food and medical supplies for employees remaining in the Kaesong complex.

President Park proposed dialogue to resolve the stalemate, but Pyongyang refused. She came to the decision that Seoul must stand up to Pyongyang by withdrawing South Korean employees if the latter rejected a dialogue proposal again. She gave an ultimatum knowing how Pyongyang would react. If Seoul had been sincere about resolving the matter through diplomatic means, it could have proposed a dialogue at the time when a South Korea-U.S. joint military drill ends or at least give Pyongyang more time. A couple of more days couldn’t have been life-threatening to the South Korean workers remaining in the complex. If the situation was that serious, employees would have voluntarily fled out of North Korea’s jurisdiction even if the government had not told them to do so.

We cannot decipher the real intention of President Park - whether she wanted to teach Pyongyang a lesson or push bilateral ties to the extreme. She would be naive if she believes Pyongyang can be tamed through strong measures such as that. We may not have come to such a deadlock if Pyongyang was that easy to deal with.

It is nerve-racking to watch the government stumbling through this mess. The vain war of tension has only ended up taking a toll on South Korean businessmen who have put their lives into the Kaesong project and North Korean workers whose salaries were the only means to survive in their impoverished society. For whom are the two Koreas waging such a chicken game? Is this all part of the so-called “trustpolitik” President Park championed to solve inter-Korean problems?

What a sight it was to see a train of vehicles heavily loaded with products from the industrial complex crossing the border. President Park pointedly remarked, “Who in the world would want to invest in North Korea now?” That’s true, but at the same time how foolish will the world consider us now. It’s like a husband and wife acting out an emotional fit, hurling away all the valuables in the house.

Except for a few representatives who stayed behind to settle issues of wages and tax payments, no South Koreans are left on the Northern side. With the last channel of dialogue and cooperation cut off, there are no longer substantial means and grounds for talks even if the two Koreas suddenly change their minds and decide to communicate.

We would be bringing chagrin to ourselves by seeking help from Americans and Chinese to arrange an inter-Korean meeting anytime soon. We have lived six decades in a truce and still exhaust ourselves in conflict. We should not blame the global powers for doing less. We must kick ourselves for foolishness and narrow-mindedness. It is not just one side. Both Koreas bear levels of responsibility to some extent.

The Kaesong industrial venture was an irrefutable symbol of inter-Korean cooperation and harmony. The factories there kept running even when the two Koreas were at odds over the North’s deadly attacks on our Cheonan warship and Yeongpyeong Island. Both sides benefitted from the complex. Accidents and hiccups can occur when building a highway. But we do not stop construction. The shutdown of the Kaesong complex is like leaving construction halfway done because of some minor disruption. We must be the first to give in. The strong should always be the first to make a conciliatory gesture.

*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Bae Myung-bok
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