A kind of ultimatum

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A kind of ultimatum

South Korea has proposed a “last” round of talks with North Korea to decide the fate of the jointly-run Kaesong Industrial Complex. South Korean Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae said that the government will “inevitably make a grave decision” if the North doesn’t give a clear guarantee of sustainable operations, in order to protect South Korean enterprises from further psychological and physical losses. He said Seoul gave the final offer as a kind of ultimatum to Pyongyang that it must make a choice - either reopen the complex with assurances that there will be no sudden and unilateral future closures, or shut it down permanently.

The Koreas have held six rounds of talks on reopening Kaesong, which has been shuttered since April after North Korea unilaterally pulled its entire workforce. They have narrowed the differences on globalizing the complex and other issues like traffic guidelines, communication and customs clearance.

But they have remained stubbornly at odds over Seoul’s demand for a written guarantee that Pyongyang will never make unilateral moves that affect business operations, such as a suspension. After the last meeting, negotiators went their separate ways without setting a new date for further talks, raising concerns that the negotiations may have failed.

Ryoo said that Seoul will approve humanitarian aid to the North by five civilian groups and join in aid programs for North Korean children through international organizations, regardless of the Kaesong impasse. The overtures were aimed at showing Pyongyang that humanitarian aid will be kept separate from political issues in the hopes of reaching a resolution on the Kaesong dispute.

Seoul wants a statement from Pyongyang ensuring that it will not take any unilateral action - such as restricting traffic or withdrawing workers - that could disturb normal operations under any circumstances. Pyongyang, however, insists on different wording - that both sides must operate the industrial park at all times and must not do anything to disturb normal operations. Seoul believes the wording is too ambiguous, leaving room for Pyongyang to shut down the complex claiming that South Koreans have insulted the North Korean leader or provoked the country with a military drill.

It will be impossible to normalize the joint venture if one side can just unilaterally suspend it. Enterprises cannot operate safely under such circumstances. If it wants to avert a permanent closure of the last remaining symbol of inter-Korean economic cooperation, Pyongyang must stop making excuses and deliver a sure and clear guarantee.
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