Kaesong at crossroads

Sophisticated machinery and electronic devices in a factory need regular maintenance. They cannot be left idle for a long period of time without proper maintenance and repair, and this is even more true during the rainy season because they are vulnerable to humidity.

That is the reason why 46 South Korean companies, which used to produce machinery and electronics parts in the North Korean border town of Kaesong, have repeatedly demanded that their staff be allowed to cross the border into the North for maintenance. They are among the 123 companies that used to operate production facilities in the Kaesong industrial complex.

The parts producers renewed their call for permission to visit the complex for maintenance last Wednesday. They said they must otherwise be allowed to relocate their production facilities to South Korea or to foreign countries. Their request had increased urgency as the rainy season had already started.

Later in the day, North Korea sent a message to the parts producers and other companies, saying that their staff would be allowed to visit the complex, whose operation was suspended when Pyongyang withdrew all workers on April 8 in protest against annual South Korean-US military manoeuvres.

Pyongyang said it would provide security for visitors and guarantee them unhindered communication with their headquarters. But this promise fell short of meeting a demand from South Korea that it be assured at official inter-Korean talks that operations would not be arbitrarily suspended in the complex again.

South Korea regarded such an assurance as critical, given that it was set to continue joint military exercises with the United States in the years ahead. On Thursday, Seoul renewed its proposal to hold working-level official talks, this time at the truce village of Panmunjeom on Saturday. Pyongyang finally agreed to the proposal.

In June, South and North Korea were on the verge of holding high-powered talks on the restarting of operations in the complex and other issues of concern. But the Pyongyang-proposed ministerial-level meeting was cancelled over a disagreement on who would lead the delegations.

Presumably, it was not easy for North Korea to accept the South Korean proposal for lower-level talks. It had been nursing a grudge against the South over the aborted higher-level talks.

True, it would not be easy for the cash-strapped North to forgo earnings from the industrial complex. Yet, its decision to sit down for official talks with the South does not necessarily mean that it is ready to yield to the South Korean demand for a commitment against an arbitrary suspension of operations in the industrial complex. The talks could be derailed, should Pyongyang resort to brinkmanship, as it has often done in the past.

It is up to North Korea to make a final decision on the fate of the industrial complex. Should it ever decide to close the complex, North Korea would have to allow the South Korean companies to transfer intermediate and finished products to their headquarters in the South. It would also have to allow them to move their production facilities to the South.