Keep Kaesong alive

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Keep Kaesong alive

South and North Korea agreed to meet for working-level government talks on Saturday on the northern side of the truce village of Panmunjom to discuss the fate of the joint-venture industrial park in Kaesong, which has been inactive for more than three months. Bureau-chief-rank representatives will lead the talks. Pyongyang was first to propose allowing businessmen and administrative members of the industrial complex back into Kaesong to discuss maintenance of equipment and factory lines that have been suspended and left unattended for months. Seoul counter-proposed to hold government-level talks first in the truce village instead of Kaesong. The two sides finally agreed to resume talks after a high-level meeting was aborted a month ago due to disagreement over delegation details.

The two sides waged a nerve war before they agreed to meet. Seoul indicated it cannot tolerate Pyongyang trying to re-open the industrial complex that it unilaterally shut down and pulled out workers without official procedures in April. Pyongyang insisted on having the talks in Kaesong, but finally gave in to Seoul’s demand of meeting in the truce village. It may be a sign that North Korea is equally eager to reopen the industrial park.

Pyongyang has been repeatedly using the Kaesong complex as political leverage against Seoul by blocking entry to the complex. Its high-handedness jeopardized business stability and the viability of the joint industrial venture. The government wants reassurance from Pyongyang to separate business from politics during the meeting. The outcome of the talks would be bleak if North Korea refuses to accept South Korea’s demand.

At the same time, Seoul officials must be aware of how desperate and frustrated South Korean businessmen might be because their businesses have been suspended for a quarter. Some of the manufacturers with sensitive equipment demanded they remove their facility out of Kaesong. They are losing clients and expensive equipment while the two governments are engaged in a war of words. The government must work to persuade North Koreans so that the complex can reopen as early as possible.

The Kaesong complex is a symbol of aspiration for co-prosperity and peace for the two Koreas. It survived various challenges and political changes since it first opened in 2004. Until its recent suspension, the complex hosted 123 South Korean companies employing more than 50,000 North Koreans and generating revenue of $500 million a year. Both Koreas must remember that they must keep alive and develop the Kaesong venture in order to solve other inter-Korean problems.

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