N.Korea Uses Industrial Park as Political Football

      April 04, 2013 13:10

      North Korea on Wednesday turned South Koreans trying to get to their jobs in the inter-Korean Kaesong Industrial Complex back at the border, but allowed South Korean workers to return to the South from there. The move follows a threat from Pyongyang last week to close down the industrial park unless the South Korean media stop insulting its "dignity" by reporting that it needs the money too badly to contemplate the closure.

      The Unification Ministry said assembly lines in the industrial park operated normally on Wednesday. Around 400 South Korean workers were scheduled to cross the border to take up their shifts, but the workers who were already there took over. Abut 800 South Korean staff remain at the complex.

      The Kaesong Industrial Complex has managed to remain open despite several North Korean provocations since it started operations in 2004. South Korea did not pull out staff despite three North Korean nuclear tests and the sinking of the Navy corvette Cheonan and shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in 2010.

      The reason was a feeling that the last bastion of inter-Korean cooperation must not be shut down. Seoul hopes that the complex will serve as a successful model for cross-border economic cooperation that could prompt the North to realize the benefits of a market economy and bring an end to perpetual confrontation.

      Some 53,000 North Koreans work at the complex and more than 200,000 others benefit from the business venture indirectly. North Koreans apparently consider it a mark of success if they land a job in the industrial park, even if the regime takes most of their earnings.

      South Korean businesses there pay each North Korean worker US$134 a month, but that is heavily taxed. As a result, the regime makes around $80-90 million in cash a year from the venture.

      Only last Wednesday, the Unification Ministry outlined a plan to bring foreign investment into the Kaesong complex. Three days later, the regime threatened to close it down and has now barred South Korean staff from crossing over to the North.

      And this is only the latest instance of the North's fickle behavior with the complex. In December 2008, it closed the border and effectively held a number of South Korean staff there hostage on account of anti-North Korean leaflets from the South, and in March 2009 it also blocked the cargo traffic because it was upset at joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises.

      The latest entry ban could be eased in a few weeks or even days. But one thing is for certain: North Korea is unpredictable. Now that Pyongyang is pushing the standoff to the edge, Seoul must place the top priority on the safety of its citizens and prepare for the worst.

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