N.Korea's Kaesong businesses hope for inter-Korean economic cooperation

SEOUL (The Korea Herald/ANN) - The Kaesong complex, considered the last vestige of inter-Korean economic cooperation, was suspected to be a source of hard currency that flowed into the North’s nuclear program, before it the industrial park was suspended. 

Among those who witnessed the historic opening of the South-North joint liaison office in Kaesong first-hand last week, those who once operated factories in the border town hoped for the resumption of the jointly operated industrial complex, while staring at the remnants of their once-prosperous businesses from afar. 

Two representatives of the businessmen who formerly operated factories in Kaesong -- Chung Ki-sub, honorary chairman of the Corporate Association of the Kaesong Industrial Complex, and Shin Han-yong, current head of the association – were invited by the Seoul government to attend the opening ceremony for the liaison office 

The two, on behalf of more than 100 local firms, were able set foot in Kaesong for the first time in 31 months, but remained banned from entering the perimeters of the complex, according to the South Korean press pool. 

For now, all Chung and Shin could do was stare at the abandoned complex -- once bustling with cross-border interactions, but now void of all human activities -- from the freshly renovated four-story liaison office building merely a kilometer from the entrance to the industrial park .

“Watching where I used to work and what I used to have within such proximity confused me – why couldn’t I just have it all back?” Shin posed to The Korea Herald on Sunday. 

“The (Sept. 18-20) inter-Korean summit is coming up and I just hope good results would come out of the talks. There has to be some progress made in the sanctions alleviation for the revival of the complex,” he added. 

The Kaesong industrial park has become a sore subject for Seoul amid the ongoing denuclearization talks between Washington and Pyongyang. A conflict of interest exists between the US and North Korea, with Pyongyang wanting to revive the complex for economic benefits, while the US has repeatedly stressed its support for Seoul’s decision to shut down the complex in 2016. 

The complex, considered the last vestige of inter-Korean economic cooperation, was suspected to be a source of hard currency that flowed into the North’s nuclear program, before it the industrial park was suspended. 

Though South Korea has been pushing for expansion of inter-Korean economic cooperation in recent months, it has also been treading carefully, trying not to irk Washington as it reiterates that the advance in South-North relations must be in tandem with the denuclearization process. 

“Despite the will of our government, (the complex) is intertwined with denuclearization issues, so we are uncertain of the timeline for the resumption of the complex,” Chung told a group of reporters before crossing the border to the North early Friday.

Chung also showed mixed feelings toward Friday’s Kaesong trip, mentioning the purpose of the trip was not due to progress in the resumption of the industrial park. 

Prior to the trip, the Seoul government denied the connection between the businessmen’s latest Kaesong visit to the possible reopening of the now-shuttered industrial zone. 

But the businessmen also saw a glimpse of hope in the relatively “well-managed” state of the complex, with hints of North Korean efforts to preserve the complex at a moderate level. 

“I spoke to a North Korean official and heard that the North tried to prevent the water pipes from freezing in the winter. It looks relatively well-managed from the outside,” Shin said. 

“We hope for the complex to resume by the end of the year due to the mounting difficulties our firms are experiencing.”

In November 2017, the Seoul government decided to provide financial compensation worth 66 billion won ($59 million) to firms that suffered damages from the Kaesong industrial park shutdown, on top of 517.3 billion won it had already agreed to dole out to firms. The companies claimed they suffered more than 1.5 trillion won in losses, but the government put the estimated damages at 786.1 billion won. 

The opening of the liaison office came almost a week before the scheduled inter-Korean summit between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, which comes amid a perceived stalemate in denuclearization talks between Washington and Pyongyang. 

(With inputs from Joint Press Corps)


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