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(News Focus) Firms pin hope on Olympics for restarting Kaesong complex

2018/02/09 11:20

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By Choi Soo-hyang

SEOUL, Feb. 9 (Yonhap) -- South Korean companies that operated factories at the now-shuttered joint industrial park in the North's border city of Kaesong said Friday they hope the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics will help pave the way for the resumption of operations.

Saturday will mark two years since South Korea abruptly pulled the plug on the special industrial complex just north of the demilitarized zone that had been hailed as a key symbol of economic cooperation between the two Koreas. The action was taken to punish Pyongyang for its fourth nuclear test and a long-range rocket launch.

Shin Han-yong, the head of a task force that represents 124 South Korean firms, said he hopes the Olympics will restore severed inter-Korean ties, as well as set the ground for the restoration of long suspended dialogue between Pyongyang and Washington so work can restart at the complex.

The Koreas will march in as one in the opening ceremony for the sporting event Friday and have also formed a joint team in women's ice hockey. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's younger sister, Kim Yo-jong, is scheduled to visit South Korea as part of the high-level delegation to PyeongChang and meet with President Moon Jae-in on Saturday.

Among the 124 companies, about 10 have been forced to suspend operations, while 30 of them are operating at substitute overseas plants. The other 70 to 80 firms have expanded their facilities in South Korea, according to the task force.

"The firms have been doing their best to get back on track and normalize their business, but have not been able to go back to levels before the shutdown," Shin said.

Businesspeople who own factories in Kaesong are planning to seek government approval for a trip to North Korea after the Olympics around the end of this month to inspect their facilities.

They have asked for approval to visit North Korea multiple times, though their plans fell through amid tensions over Pyongyang's ongoing nuclear and missile programs.

Any trip by South Koreans to North Korea requires the Seoul government's approval as well as the North's consent. The two Koreas technically remain in a state of war, since the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce not a peace treaty.

It remains unclear whether the PyeongChang Olympics will generate enough momentum to reopen the factory park.

Countries around the world, and the United States in particular, have stepped up sanctions to cut off sources of hard currency for Pyongyang.

U.S. policymakers have expressed firm support for South Korea's decision to shut down the Kaesong complex in 2016, while U.N. sanctions have effectively banned the transfer of bulk cash to the North, making it hard to reopen the complex as doing so would entail paying workers.

Washington, in addition, has said on numerous occasions that it will work with its partners, including Seoul, to exert maximum pressure on North Korea so the country's leadership will move to give up its nuclear weapons, stating that any meaningful talks will have to be centered on this issue. The North, however, has refused to discuss its nuclear development program and insisted that it will never give up its means to defend itself from outside threats to its survival.

The South Korean firms, which produced mostly labor-intensive goods like clothes and utensils at the complex, have claimed that the shutdown has cost them more than 1.5 trillion won (US$1.4 billion) in losses.

The Seoul government estimates their losses to be around 786 billion won and has provided 583 billion won as compensation so far.

This file photo, taken May 15, 2017, from the Dora Observatory in Paju, north of Seoul, shows the now-shuttered South Korean industrial park (front) in the North Korean city of Kaesong. (Yonhap) This file photo, taken May 15, 2017, from the Dora Observatory in Paju, north of Seoul, shows the now-shuttered South Korean industrial park (front) in the North Korean city of Kaesong. (Yonhap)

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