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(News Focus) Outlook for Koreas' ties murky amid 6-month shutdown of Kaesong complex

2016/08/09 14:00

By Kim Soo-yeon

SEOUL, Aug. 9 (Yonhap) -- South and North Korea's relations will likely remain severely frayed as Pyongyang shows no signs of ending its nuclear and missile provocations with the closure of a joint industrial park entering the sixth month, experts said Tuesday.

On Feb. 10, South Korea shut down the Kaesong Industrial Complex in the North's border city of the same name, the last symbol of inter-Korean reconciliation, in response to Pyongyang's nuclear test in January and launch of a long-range rocket in the following month.

Seoul's decision aims to prevent money generated from the factory zone from bankrolling the North's nuclear and missile programs.

Since its opening in 2004, around US$560 million in total has been provided to North Korean workers at the factory park, including $120 million, last year, according to Seoul's unification ministry.

In retaliation to Seoul's move, North Korea kicked out all South Korean nationals staying at the complex and froze their assets while designating it a military-controlled zone.

With the shutdown getting into the sixth month, South Korea's stance over the complex remains adamant as the government places priority on making Pyongyang give up its nuclear weapons program over the resumption of any inter-Korean talks.

"It is not the time to talk about dialogue with Pyongyang," said an official at the Ministry of Unification. "North Korea should first show its commitment to denuclearization."


This file photo shows the Kaesong Industrial Complex, the now-shuttered inter-Korean factory zone located in North Korea's border city of the same name. (Yonhap) This file photo shows the Kaesong Industrial Complex, the now-shuttered inter-Korean factory zone located in North Korea's border city of the same name. (Yonhap)

A total of 124 South Korean firms operated factories at the complex, some 50 kilometers northwest of Seoul, employing more than 54,000 North Korean workers to produce labor-intensive goods, such as clothes and utensils.

The closure of the complex has effectively closed down the inter-Korean Customs, Immigration and Quarantine office, a checkpoint in South Korea's border city of Paju, since there are no flows of vehicles that used to transport products and people into and out of the factory zone.

South Korea did not close the complex even when North Korea staged deadly attacks against the country in 2010. That year the North torpedoed a South Korean warship and shelled a front-line Yeonpyeong Island.

But in April 2013, the North abruptly shut it down for about four months, citing what it called heightened tension sparked by a joint military drill between Seoul and Washington. In February of that year, the North had conducted its third nuke test.

A group of the companies said that Seoul's shutdown of the complex has incurred more than 815 billion won ($735.2 million) in losses, adding that the government's financial support is not sufficient.

The government said that it has provided 336.9 billion won, or 66 percent, of earmarked support funds of some 500 billion won to local firms to help cover their financial losses.

The future of the complex is quite dim as North Korea has never stopped its nuclear and missile provocations in defiance of international condemnation, experts said. The U.N. Security Council slapped its toughest sanctions to date on Pyongyang in March.

North Korea claims technical breakthroughs in its missile program, saying that it has succeeded in making a nuclear warhead small enough to fit on a ballistic missile.

Seoul and Washington said that Pyongyang's miniaturization technology has not been fully achieved though private experts said that the reclusive country may have made significant progress.

In June, after several failed attempts, the North claimed the successful launch of an intermediate-range Musudan ballistic missile, saying it has the capacity to strike U.S. forces in the Pacific region. Last week, it fired off a mid-range Rodong ballistic missile into waters near Japan for the first time.

Experts said that there is no expectation for positive development of Seoul-Pyongyang ties in the foreseeable future.

The North vowed last month to "take counteraction," against Seoul's decision to deploy an advanced U.S. missile defense system on its soil, a move aimed at countering the North's evolving nuke and missile threats.

"South Korea's move to close the complex might have helped elicit tougher sanctions on North Korea. But it is questionable whether it is effective as the North does not seem inclined to alter its nuclear policy," said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies.

At a rare party congress in May, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un pledged to "permanently" seek his dual policy of developing nuclear and economic development, commonly known as the "byeongjin" policy.

"We are not saying that dialogue and exchanges mean nothing. As the North continues to develop nuclear weapons, we need to change our strategy to make Pyongyang feel pain," a ranking ministry official told reporters on July 19.

The inter-Korean ties underwent a short-lived conciliatory mood late last year following their rare deal in August 2015 on easing military tension. But the North's provocative acts early this year again chilled cross-border relations and led Seoul to suspend civilian exchanges with Pyongyang.