Kaesong Debacle Means Hard Times for Inter-Korean Ties

      April 30, 2013 13:03

      Most of the 50 remaining South Korean workers at the Kaesong Industrial Complex came home late Monday night. They are staff from the committee in charge of operating the industrial park, utility KEPCO, the Korea Water Resources Corporation, the Korea Land and Housing Corporation, telecom provider KT and Woori Bank.

      But five members of the management committee and two KT staff are stuck there while the North tries to squeeze every last penny out of the South by seeking payment of back wages and other fees it claims are due.

      While it blocked entry of people, raw materials, food and medicine from South Korea on April 3, North Korea said it would attach no conditions to the withdrawal of South Korean workers. The powerful National Defense Commission in a statement on March 26 pledged to take full responsibility for the safety and humanitarian treatment of South Korean workers should they evacuate.

      The North must live up to that pledge. The South Korean public as well as the international community are watching how North Korea handles this issue and will base any decision whether to invest in the North on it.

      If the remaining seven people come home safely, it will be the first time the joint industrial complex is empty of South Koreans since it opened in December of 2004. It would also mark the severing of all communication lines between the two Koreas after the shutdown of official channels earlier this year.

      In early March, North Korea cut a direct hotline with South Korea at the border peace village of Panmunjom and a military hotline in the West Sea. It will be the first time since Red Cross communication lines were set up in Panmunjom in 1972 that even emergency communication channels are down.

      After a North Korean soldier shot and killed a South Korean tourist in the Mt. Kumgang resort in 2008, the South halted all tours to the scenic mountain. That prompted North Korea to seize South Korean property there. Pyongyang may attempt to do the same thing at the Kaesong Industrial Complex.

      But it cannot operate it alone. The complex relies on 100,000 kW of power the South provides every day and receives 60,000 tons of water as well. It would cost the North tens of billions of won to build the infrastructure to supply the equivalent amount of power and water to keep the complex running.

      North Korea must not let the industrial park fall victim to politics, since it is the last remaining hope of inter-Korean cooperation. It should respond to Seoul's offer of talks to resume operations there. The South Korean government must also come up with steps to deal with potential crises now that no communication channels remain. Crisis management is the order of the day.

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