Korea: Big chill in Kaesong
Share this on

Korea: Big chill in Kaesong

The Korean peninsula is in the grasp of the coldest weather in a decade, with temperatures in Seoul plunging as low as minus 17.8 Celsius.

But that is nothing compared to the chill in relations between Seoul and Pyongyang over the past year, as evidenced by the failure of Pyongyang to unilaterally reopen the Kaesong* Industrial Complex’s economic cooperation office:

On a cold Wednesday morning when the mercury dipped to minus 10 degrees Celsius, North Korean officials entered the inter-Korean economic cooperation office at the Gaeseong (Kaesong) Industrial Complex near the inter-Korean border.

They went to the office to resume operations at the complex, which had been suspended since May last year after a North Korean torpedo attack sank the South Korean naval vessel Cheonan…

The officials soon left the office, however, given the lack of South Korean counterparts and the South’s Korea Electric Power Corp. shutoff of power to the building.

A South Korean government official said Friday that the supply of electricity and water has remained cut off since May after Seoul rejected Pyongyang’s plan to unilaterally resume operations.

South Korea supplies of the electric power to the complex, which teams South Korean capital and know-how with North Korean cheap labor.

kaesong-workers1

The complex is a legacy of the Sunshine Policy of providing aid and economic cooperation to Pyongyang in the hope that it would induce the communist state to introduce reforms and become less confrontational towards Seoul.  The policy was started during the 1998-2003 administration of President Kim Dae-jung, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000 for his efforts at inter-Korean reconciliation, and was continued under the even more conciliatory Roh Moo-hyun.

However, growing impatience among South Koreans over Pyongyang’s perceived lack of reciprocity gave conservative President Lee Myung-bak the political coverage to scale back Seoul’s largess.  The joint tourist project at Mount Kumgang in North Korea was suspended after a South Korean tourist was shot and killed by a North Korean guard in July of 2008.

While the economic cooperation office has been shut down, it is business as usually for the South Korean companies operating in Kaesong.  Operations there continued through the shooting at Mount Kumgang in 2008, the sinking of the of the South Korean warship Cheonan last May and the North Korean artillery attack against Yeonpyeong Island last November.  Seoul did briefly ban South Korean managers from traveling to the industrial complex after the artillery attack as a precautionary measure, but the ban was soon lifted.

Despite North Korean acts of aggression, the Lee administration is reluctant to scrap the last remaining vestige of the Sunshine Policy.  It was the only aspect of the policy that proved to be mutually advantageous, something that fits Lee’s emphasis on reciprocity in the relationship between Seoul and Pyongyang.  Also, Lee’s Vision 3000 (which now often goes under the name of “grand bargain”) plan for Korean unification is centered on economic cooperation.  Closing the complex would all but end any hope of moving towards reunification during his term in office.

So, barring a North Korean act of aggression even worse than the attack on Yeonpyeong Island, we can expect business to continue in Kaesong despite the chill in inter-Korean relations.

*개성 is romanized as Kaesong by North Korea and Gaeseong by South Korea.