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(News Focus) Koreas resolve standoff over shuttered Kaesong zone

2013/08/14 23:23

By Lee Joon-sung

SEOUL, Aug. 14 (Yonhap) -- After seven rounds of negotiations over the course of several weeks, South and North Korea averted the complete shutdown of the inter-Korean factory park in the North's boder city of Kaesong.

A five-point agreement reached Wednesday to reopen the Kaesong Industrial Complex comes 133 days after the North restricted entry into the zone on April 3, citing joint South Korean-U.S. military drills it said threatened its security. This was followed by the complete halt of operations after Pyongyang ordered all of its 53,000 workers not to report to work.

Seoul countered by pulling out all of its managers on May 3. It then warned of "grave measures" against the industrial complex unless the North pledges not to close the complex again in the future.

Earlier this month, South Korea had authorized 280.9 billion won (US$250.9 million) in insurance payments to 109 companies with assets in Kaesong in a move seen as a step toward permanent closure of the factory park.

These developments all combined to prompt North Korea to come to the negotiating, according to government officials and experts in Seoul.

"The agreement, while stating both Koreas must work together to prevent another shut down, makes clear that it is the North that has to give all the guarantees not to block the movement of people and materials and the pulling out of workers," said Kim Ki-woong, Seoul's chief delegate at the talks.

He pointed out that the agreement was based on the proposal forwarded by the South earlier in the day and that it set up various safeguards to prevent the North from closing the complex in the future.

Kim said that the creation of a brand new joint management committee will effectively give Seoul equal say in the running of operations and make it impossible for the North to carry out unilateral actions.

He said the call to transform Kaesong into a truly international complex is another safeguard that will make it difficult for the North to take arbitrary actions similar to those it carried out in March and April of this year.

Related to the agreement reached, local experts said that reopening the complex marks a positive turn of events that can lay the first firm foundation for their trust building process, which has been the hallmark of President Park Guen-hye's North Korean policy.

She said after the agreement was reached that the move to reopen the Kaesong complex should be utilized as a new starting point for South-North relations.

This view was echoed by Chang Yong-seok, a senior researcher at the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University, who said the understanding reached could lay the foundation for trust building down the line. It could also be used as a stepping stone for restarting tours to the Mount Kumgang resort that has been suspended since 2008, he said.

"The latest breakthrough can moreover open the door for family reunions for people who were separated by the Korean War, as well as more humanitarian assistance and exchanges," he speculated.

Others said that the agreement reached showed both sides have made some strategic concessions that are a good precedence for future talks. They added that Seoul and Pyongyang may have realized they had too much vested in Kaesong to allow it to be closed completely.

Yang Moo-jin, a political scientist at the University of North Korean Studies said that by demonstrating the ability to accept requests by the other side, the incumbent administration's policy initiative toward the North has gained more buoyancy.

A sign that the Kaesong talks may have exerted a positive influence on relations can be discerned by the lack of belligerence shown by North Korea toward the upcoming Ulchi Freedom Guardian military exercises between South Korea and U.S. forces. The exercises will kick off next week.

Typically Pyongyang issues formal condemnations whenever military drills take place, calling them a dress rehearsal to invade the North.

After having fueled tensions earlier in the year that culminated in the detonation of its third nuclear device, there have been speculations that the North may be trying to mellow its stance and abstain from antagonizing its neighbors.

Despite such predictions, some North Korean analysts said there is much that must be done to reduce tensions on the Korean Peninsula, and that the two sides should continue to engage in dialogue.

"Taking advantage of the agreement, the two sides should move on projects such as the peace park that President Park wanted to build inside the demilitarized zone," said Park Hyeong-jung, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification. He said that by showing willingness to make headway on small scale projects, the two sides can expand cooperation.

If talks and exchanges progress, the level of talks could be moved up to the ministerial level. Such a move could welcome the discussion of more comprehensive issues facing the two countries and help solve more outstanding points of contention, he added.

yonngong@yna.co.kr

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