Kaeseong closure sets Korean ties back to Cold War era

Kaeseong closure sets Korean ties back to Cold War era
South Korean soldiers stand guard at a gateway which leads to the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC) at the South's CIQ, in Paju.
PHOTO: Reuters

It took the two divided Koreas 42 years to start official communication and another decade to agree on a joint industrial complex in the hopes of creating a buffer zone on the tense peninsula.

But the recent spate of military provocations from the North and the consequent decision by the South to close the factories showed that decades of gradual fence-mending can turn to naught in one stroke.

South Korea's Unification Ministry on Wednesday announced the closure of the Gaeseong industrial complex in retaliation to its communist neighbour's recent nuclear and missile provocations.

It also alluded Thursday that it may suspend the Rajin-Khasan project, a trilateral logistics plan involving the two Koreas and Russia that aims at connecting North Korea's port city and Russia's border city.

North Korea promptly returned the blow.

The Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland, the North's government body that deals with inter-Korean affairs, pledged on Thursday to immediately expel all South Korean nationals from the park. It also declared the industrial area as a military zone.

"The Park Geun-hye clique, who are traitors to the people, will pay the most miserable price for halting the Gaeseong complex," the Korean Central News Agency quoted the CPRF as stating.

"This provocative measure not only puts an end to North-South relations, but it is also a complete denial of the June 15 joint agreement and a dangerous war proclamation."

The CPRF also claimed that the North's hydrogen bomb test and satellite launch, carried out in early January and last weekend respectively, were an exercise of sovereign rights.

Such elevating tensions in the shaky inter-Korean ties signals a red light for other peaceful gestures such as the reunion of separated families.

Since it was established by the inter-Korean summit in 2000, the factory cluster has faced frequent roadblocks, such as temporary suspension and access control, but this is the first time that South Korea has declared an all-out halt that could lead to permanent shutdown.

"The (South Korean) government made it clear that the reactivation of the park should be preceded by the North's sincere measure to give up its nuclear and missile disarmament," said Kim Yong-hyun, professor of North Korean studies at Dongkuk University.

"But North Korea is not likely to give up its weapons easily, in which case the closure will remain permanent."

Located just North of the truce line and consisting of 124 companies and some 54,000 North Korean employees, the Gaeseong industrial park has been a symbol -- and the last bastion -- of inter-Korean reconciliation.

The two Koreas, since establishing their respective governments in 1948, shut each other out in enmity. Their conflict peaked in 1950 when the communist North's then-leader Kim Il-sung invaded the South with ambitions to unify the peninsula by force, starting the three-year Korean War.

It was only in 1990 that the two states finally sat down at the same table and adopted the Inter-Korean Basic Agreement and pledged nonaggression and exchange.

Despite the hard-reached agreement, however, inter-Korean relations remained frigid throughout the 1990s, mostly due to the North's withdrawal from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 1993.

The game-changer was liberal President Kim Dae-jung who, after a series of unfruitful vice-ministerial talks, succeeded in holding the first-ever summit with his North Korean counterpart Kim Jong-il in 2000.

It was based on their Aug. 15 agreement that the Gaeseong industrial zone started production in 2004. A total of 616 billion won ($512.5 million) has been sank into the facilities so far, in addition to 1.19 trillion won in infrastructure, operations and other administrative expenses, according to the Unification Ministry.

In April 2013, shortly after the current conservative Park Geun-hye administration took office, the North suspended operation of the park in protest against the South's joint military drills with the United States. But the two states reached a normalisation agreement five months later, with the North expressing regret for the suspension and the South pledging to keep the park in operation under all political circumstances.

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