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2008/12/18 11:25 KST
NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 34 (December 18, 2008)


Kaesong Complex Not to Be Made Political Hostage to Inter-Korean Tensions

By Jhe Seong-ho (Professor of Law at Chung-Ang University in Seoul)

After a series of warnings, North Korea on Dec. 1 followed through with its announcement on Nov. 24 to "selectively expel" South Korean personnel from the jointly operated Kaesong industrial complex, shut down the joint office for inter-Korean economic cooperation, enforce stricter border control, suspend tours to the historic city of Kaesong, and halt the cross-border train service.

   As a result, South Korean businesses operating in Kaesong are confronting difficulties as the North's recent measures have disrupted support lines and tightened regulations on cross-border traffic and customs control.

   There are several reasons why North Korea has simultaneously adopted multiple hard-line policies against the South. Its actions can be interpreted as a sign of disapproval toward the incumbent South Korean government's policy on North Korea and a demand for the return of the "sunshine policy" which had been advocated by the previous Seoul governments.

   Other purposes include preventing social unrest within the system of the socialist country, especially in light of the persistent rumors about Kim Jong-il's severe illness, and waging a psychological war with the South to stir up disputes among different South Korean groups.

   The socialist North is also scheming to display the regime's resolute stance in future six-party nuclear negotiations and bilateral talks with the United States.

   Using "shock diplomacy" to heighten maximum tensions on the Korean Peninsula, North Korea also seeks to drive the Lee Myung-bak administration into a corner and use the leverage that it gains as a stepping stone to win more concessions and benefits for its regime.

   According to recent sources, the restrictive measures recently announced by Pyongyang were ordered directly by North Korean leader Kim Jong-il for domestic reasons.

   Authorities in the reclusive country have been struggling to purge any group that sympathizes with or participates in what they consider the "three threats to the regime" -- dissatisfaction with the regime, expansion of a market economy and increasing dependence on the wealthier South.

   As a means of overcoming this sense of crisis, North Korea is extending its military and political power over the Kaesong industrial complex, located just north of the heavily-fortified Demilitarized Zone.

   It has also been reported that amid rumors in September about Kim Jong-il's failing health, close aides to the North Korean leader began cracking down on elites who were secretly discussing the "forbidden" topic of succession, for fear this would weaken people's loyalty toward the supreme leader.

   Put into context, it is understandable why Pyongyang has been comparatively generous in its treatment of South Korean businesses in Kaesong, although it has enforced stricter regulations on interactions with the South. North Korea has tried to minimize its economic losses resulting from the reduction of the South Korean staff and workforce at the Kaesong industrial complex by "guaranteeing" the business activities of South Korean companies.

   For the past ten years, North Korea has pursued inter-Korean economic cooperation while concurrently restricting the influx of capitalism and preventing the relaxation of their socialist system. For example, it designated the Rajin-Sonbong region as a free economic and trade zone in the early 1990s to spur economic development, but all activities came to a halt when Kim Jong-il criticized the zone for being affected by capitalism and other foreign influences during an on-site visit around 1997.

   As part of a movement to "rid South Korean influence," the (North) Korean Workers' Party and the State Security Agency recently decreed a "special inspection order" to track down anyone who watches or distributes South Korean TV shows or video clips.

   Also, the ruling party and the security agency are known to have conducted large-scale inspections and audit since late last year on the United Front Department of the Workers' Party and the cabinet's National Economic Cooperation Federation, which have close relations with South Korean affairs.

   Therefore, it is not valid for the North to blame South Korea for the recent shutdown of the Kaesong industrial complex by pointing to the South's disregard of the June 15 joint statement and October 4 declaration and its "confrontational" policy toward the North. The Lee Myung-bak administration has never disregarded the June 15 joint statement in 2000 and the October 4 declaration in 2007, which were signed in Pyongyang between Kim Jong-il and former South Korean Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, respectively.

   Rather, Lee proposed initiating full inter-Korean dialogue at the opening speech of the National Assembly on July 11 and has repeatedly emphasized resuming inter-Korean talks between authorities seeking to implement realistic policies through the spirit of mutual respect and trust.

   North Korea has also criticized South Korea for its hard-line policies, accusing the government of spreading anti-Pyongyang leaflets to the North to undermine its regime. However, South Korean civic groups have been spreading leaflets for five years now, and one can only question the real motives behind why North Korea is now all of a sudden bringing this issue into the spotlight.

   Regardless of the circumstances, the Kaesong joint industrial complex serves as the test of North Korea's willingness to open up. If this industrial zone fails, North Korea will not be able to attract foreign investment from any country in the future.

   North Korea needs to break away from the idea of taking the Kaesong industrial complex hostage as a means to ransom its way out of inter-Korean tensions. Instead, it should prevent itself from being blown over by political influences and cooperate in developing the region into an industrial park of mutual benefit and common prosperity for both North and South Korea.