Heavyweights take part in discussion in Kaesong
After 43 South Korean workers came back across the border from the inter-Korean factory zone in Kaesong early Tuesday morning, five South Korean government officials and two telecommunications employees from KT remained in Kaesong to take the final steps before leaving the industrial complex.
North Korea demanded that some workers stay behind to resolve issues such as wages owed to its workers and taxes.
According to the government, the North demanded $7.2 million in wages for its 53,000 workers for March. The North pulled its workers from the complex on April 8 and stopped South Korean vehicles carrying any materials, including cash, from crossing the border, which led to the wages being unpaid.
In addition to the wages, the North wanted South Korean companies to pay income taxes for 2012 and fees for having used the Kaesong Telecommunication Office to make phone calls between Seoul and Kaesong. Sources said the North is demanding about $8 million in total including the unpaid wages, while the South is demanding that it be allowed to take out completed manufactured goods and leftover raw materials from the Kaesong factories.
The negotiations continued yesterday, according to the Ministry of Unification.
“We are talking with the North on the working-level issues,” said Kim Hyung-suk, spokesman of the ministry. “The seven will return as soon as the talks are concluded.”
Kim also stressed that Seoul’s offer for broader talks is still valid.
Although labeled as “working-level talks” to settle wages and tax issues, the negotiations in Kaesong appeared to be more than simple number crunching. North Korea dispatched veteran inter-Korean negotiators, and the South’s chief representative is a former vice unification minister who has dealt with the North in numerous governmental and Red Cross talks.
From the North, Ri Kum-chol, chief of the Central Special Zone Development Guidance General Bureau, and Maeng Kyong-il, senior official of North Korea’s Asia-Pacific Peace Committee, are involved in the talks, a South Korean official told the JoongAng Ilbo.
“Right now, Pak Chol-su, vice director of the Central Special Zone Development Guidance General Bureau, and other working-level officials are at the negotiating table,” said the source. “But Ri and Maeng are traveling between Pyongyang and Kaesong to oversee the negotiations.”
According to the source, Pak will only deliver Pyongyang’s stance, taking into account the North’s negotiation history. “So, we are paying more attention to the role of Ri and Maeng, who coordinate positions with Pyongyang,” he said.
Ri has headed the bureau since 2011, and he headed the North Korean delegations in Red Cross talks from 2000 to 2002.
He is also a familiar face to some South Koreans as he worked as a guide for Lim Su-kyung during her publicized unauthorized trip to Pyongyang in 1989. Ri, who was leader of the North’s university student committee, escorted Lim, a South Korean pro-unification student activist at the time, during her 50-day stay. Lim currently serves as a Democratic United Party lawmaker.
Maeng was the North’s chief negotiator in ministerial-level talks with the South from 2005 to 2007. He also headed the North’s delegation during the two Koreas’ joint survey of overseas industrial complexes in 2009.
He visited South Korea in August 2009 as a member of the North’s delegation to pay condolences over the death of former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung.
“He used to handle high-profile inter-Korean projects,” a South Korean intelligence official said. “We have witnessed many times in the past that he fixed stalled negotiations.”
Among the seven South Koreans remaining in Kaesong is Hong Yang-ho, a former vice unification minister who currently heads the Kaesong Industrial District Management Committee. Since Hong is a veteran negotiator, expectations also grew in Seoul about his role in finding a breakthrough.
“We have former Vice Minister Hong in Kaesong, so it is possible for the two Koreas to have significant talks behind the curtain,” Representative Park Jie-won of the Democratic United Party said in an interview with CBS yesterday.
Park, who worked as a secret envoy of President Kim Dae-jung to arrange the historic inter-Korean summit in 2000, said that using Hong as a link to the North will eventually keep the Kaesong Industrial Complex alive and ease tensions between the two Koreas.
“Although the remaining seven in Kaesong will have various hardships, Hong is a very capable person with significant experience in inter-Korean talks,” Park said. “Therefore, the seven, with Hong at the center, can reignite the fading prospects for talks.”
Experts also said the North won’t be able to easily give up the lucrative joint industrial zone. Every year, 53,000 North Korean workers in the factories of 123 South Korean firms in Kaesong earn $90 million, helping keep the moribund North Korean economy alive.
The North earns about $100 million a year for exporting conventional weapons. The wages from Kaesong, therefore, are earnings they can’t easily dismiss.
Meanwhile, politicians called yesterday for the last remaining inter-Korean cooperative venture to be continued. While the Park Geun-hye administration decided to withdraw South Korean workers last week, it has not pulled the final plug on the complex because the South’s supply of electricity and water continued as of yesterday.
“Although the companies’ activities practically ended, Kaesong residents are still using the electricity and water,” said Saenuri Chairman Hwang Woo-yea yesterday in the party leadership meeting. “For humanitarian reasons, the supplies must continue. To this end, it is necessary for the two Koreas to have contact.”
By Lee Young-jong, Ser Myo-ja [email@example.com]