U.S. State Dept. backs 2016 closure of Kaesong

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U.S. State Dept. backs 2016 closure of Kaesong

The U.S. Department of State said it supports Seoul’s decision to shut down the inter-Korean industrial park Kaesong Industrial Complex in 2016 despite a South Korean Unification Ministry panel concluding last week that the decision was reached unilaterally by former President Park Geun-hye.

Similarly, U.S. former diplomats and analysts on Asia affairs are also warning the Moon Jae-in administration against reopening the shuttered Kaesong industrial park, which was the last vestige of inter-Korean cooperation until it was closed down in February 2016, saying it could sour Seoul-Washington relations.

“We support the 2016 decision to shut down the Kaesong Complex in the face of the [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s] destabilizing and provocative actions,” a spokesman of the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Michael Kavey, was quoted as telling Voice of America on Friday. “The decision reflects growing concern in the region about North Korea’s growing threat and flagrant disregard of multiple UN Security Council resolutions.”

He pointed out that U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has emphasized that “all countries must take action to increase North Korea’s financial isolation.”

South Korea’s Ministry of Unification Thursday announced the results of a nine-member panel of experts that accused ousted former President Park of “transcending legitimate procedures” and “proper consultations” in making the Kaesong decision on her own.

On Feb. 10, 2016, the Unification Ministry announced it was shutting down the Kaesong complex, started under the Sunshine Policy of former President Kim Dae-jung, in retaliation for the North’s fourth nuclear test and launch of a long-range rocket earlier that year. At the time, the ministry said members of the National Security Council’s standing committee reached the decision.

A task force comprised of businessmen from 123 South Korean companies that had operated factories at Kaesong called on the government to conduct a probe into the shutdown of the industrial park on Friday.

But U.S. experts are pointing out that if President Moon Jae-in tries to reopen the Kaesong Industrial Complex, it could have repercussions for the U.S.-South Korea alliance.

“The centerpiece of the Trump administration’s current approach on North Korea is to rely on massive pressure and isolation, based on multilateral and unilateral sanctions and the cooperation of the international community, to compel North Korea to make a different choice regarding its pursuit of nuclear weapons,” Evans J.R. Revere, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs under the George W. Bush administration, told the JoongAng Ilbo Sunday.

“The reopening of the Kaesong Complex would directly undermine these efforts, including by providing vital foreign exchange to the North Korean regime at a critical juncture. It is hard to imagine how a crisis in the U.S.-Republic of Korea bilateral relationship could be avoided under such circumstances.”

Revere, a nonresident senior fellow with the Brookings Institute’s Center for East Asia Policy Studies, pointed out that the South Korean unification minister confirmed in 2016 that some 70 percent of the wages being paid to North Korean workers by South Korean companies were being diverted to the secretariat of the North Korean Workers’ Party.

“At the time those official comments were made, they were widely interpreted as a de facto acknowledgment that the bulk transfer of cash to the North Korean regime had been a likely violation of a standing UN Security Council resolution,” he added. “These comments and prohibitions speak for themselves.”

Bruce Klingner, a former CIA deputy division chief for Korea and a senior research fellow of the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center, likewise pointed out that restarting the Kaesong complex “without prior approval by the United Nations would unequivocally be a violation of numerous UN Security Council resolutions.”

He added, “The wording of the resolutions makes it absolutely clear that South Korean involvement in the complex would be in defiance of the international community. President Moon has acknowledged as such and abandoned his previous campaign pledge to reopen it.”

Should the Moon administration violate UN resolutions by reopening the industrial park, Klingner said, “South Korea would be running against the international community consensus to increase pressure on North Korea. Such action would certainly cause strains between Seoul and UN members, including the United States. South Korea cannot unilaterally negotiate away provisions in UN resolutions.”

Sue Mi Terry, senior fellow for Korea Chair with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), likewise warned that the South Korean government “should not reopen the Kaesong Industrial Complex despite the controversy over how it was suspended by President Park, whether it was properly or improperly closed.”

Terry, a former senior analyst on Korean issues at the CIA, added, “I am pretty sure that if the Moon government decides to go forward with reopening Kaesong, the Trump administration will most likely consider it a divergence in policy with what it is trying to achieve with North Korea.”

She pointed out that UN Security Council Resolution 2321 adopted in 2016 also specifically states that all member states shall “prohibit public and private financial support within their territories or by persons or entities subject to their jurisdiction” for trade with North Korea.

BY JUNG HYO-SIK, SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]
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