Liberals say Kaesong is answer to mask shortage woes

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Liberals say Kaesong is answer to mask shortage woes

South Korea’s Ministry of Unification says it’s unrealistic, but liberal lawmakers in Seoul say they have a plan to solve the country’s face mask shortage and thaw inter-Korean relations at the same time.

Ruling Democratic Party (DP) Rep. Woo Won-shik and Justice Party Rep. Youn So-ha on Thursday released a statement calling on Seoul to reopen factories in the Kaesong Industrial Complex with North Korea so that they can be used to produce face masks to combat the coronavirus outbreak.

“The Kaesong Industrial Complex has around 70 textile factories, including a face mask manufacturer, and around 30,000 skilled laborers capable of solving the mask shortage problem if made to produce face masks and hazmat suits,” Woo said in a press conference at the National Assembly.

“Moreover, this matter may be free from United Nations sanctions given that it has a humanitarian purpose.”

The Kaesong Industrial Complex is a 66-square-kilometer (25-square-mile) industrial park in North Korea’s border city of Kaesong shuttered in 2016 after South Korea’s Park Geun-hye administration recalled all southern personnel in the zone in retaliation to a North Korean long-range missile test.

Under President Moon Jae-in’s re-engagement policy with North Korea, Seoul has sought to reopen and expand the area, but such plans remain dead in the water due to the United States’ aversion to sanctions relief for Pyongyang.

But a major outbreak of the new coronavirus in South Korea and a resultant shortage in masks gave new fodder for supporters of the inter-Korean project, after a petition surfaced on the Blue House website last Friday suggesting closed South Korean factories in Kaesong be repurposed to produce face masks to resolve the shortage.

After gaining thousands of signatures, the idea presented by the petition gained support from politicians and activist groups, including an organization made up of South Korean business owners with assets in the Kaesong Industrial Complex.

Reps. Park Kwang-on and Sul Hoon, two ranking lawmakers in the DP, praised the idea as an opportunity to improve inter-Korean ties at a party meeting Wednesday, and the leftist Justice Party held a roundtable discussion with experts that day that added traction to the plan.

The optimism was not shared by the government.

In a press briefing Wednesday, South Korea’s Unification Ministry spokesman Yoh Sang-key expressed skepticism on the plan’s feasibility, saying while Seoul continues to support reopening the Kaesong Industrial Complex in the near future, there were “realistic reasons” preventing immediate reoperation of the plants there.

Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun also appeared to discourage the idea in a parliamentary hearing Wednesday, saying the problem behind the mask shortages in South Korea was not a lack of factories but the privation of materials like filters necessary to manufacture face masks.

“We agree with the intentions behind the plan, but whether actual production would be practical is an entirely different matter altogether,” a Unification Ministry official told reporters Thursday. The biggest barrier to the plan - as with any inter-Korean project - is North Korea’s response, the official said.

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