KOREA - North Korea on Thursday accepted a request by South Korean lawmakers to visit Gaeseong, raising hopes that momentum will pick up for the joint factory park whose recently resumed operations are suffering after a five-month freeze.
Twenty-four members of the National Assembly's foreign affairs and unification committee have applied for a one-day trip to the border town industrial zone on Oct. 30 as part of an ongoing parliamentary audit.
The acceptance was delivered to the newly launched permanent secretariat overseeing the industrial complex.
If they make it to the border city, it would be the panel's first official group tour since the business district's inception in 2004. The delegation is expected to include one aide of each lawmaker and several officials from the Unification Ministry including Kim Ki-woong, the director general of inter-Korean cooperation district support and a cochair of an inter-Korean committee in charge of the Gaeseong park.
"Their purpose is to check the situation there and see how they can support," a ministry official told reporters on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.
"Fortunately the North accepted it so the government will make preparations in a way that can contribute to the Gaeseong complex's future-oriented normalization."
The lawmakers' trip is to come about seven weeks after the two Koreas resuscitated the last remaining symbol of cross-border cooperation.
But the 123 companies running factories in Gaeseong are struggling to make up for revenue shortfalls, pay back loans and recapture buyers who have shied away in the face of mounting uncertainty.
As a result, the complex is operating at 70-80 per cent capacity, government officials say. The number of North Korean workers has plunged from about 53,000 to 43,000.
In addition, Pyongyang, through a Sept. 11 deal, agreed to facilitate their operation and improve the district's sustainability by easing rules on communications, customs and passage and holding investment promotion events. But discussions have made little headway, while the investor meeting slated for Oct. 31 was called off last week.
Businesspeople and lawmakers are pinning hopes on the upcoming tour as a chance to revive momentum for a full-fledged normalization, and draw more assistance from the government and parliament as shown in the past.
"The Gaeseong park has been virtually the last buttress for inter-Korean relations," Park Joo-sun, a three-term independent lawmaker, said in a statement.
"I hope the committee's visit will play a crucial role in rebuilding the trust of buyers of Gaeseong-made products at home and abroad."