SEOUL: North and South Korea will hold a seventh round of talks on Wednesday on reopening their joint industrial park in Kaesong, with a lot more than the future of the complex riding on the outcome.
With South Korea kicking off a military exercise with the United States next week, the result of the negotiations could determine whether the peninsula is sucked into another dangerous cycle of escalating tensions.
Similar joint exercises earlier this year were cited by Pyongyang as the main factor behind its decision in early April to effectively shut down the Kaesong industrial zone.
The North initially barred access to the park, which lies 10 kilometers (six miles) inside the North Korean border, and then withdrew its 53,000-strong workforce that keeps the 123 South Korean firms in Kaesong running.
After six rounds of talks on normalizing operations resulted in little more than mutual mud-slinging, the process petered out and Kaesong’s future looked bleak.
Then last week, just as Seoul announced it was going to start compensation payouts totalling $250 million to businesses impacted by Kaesong’s closure, North Korea proposed fresh dialogue.
The proposal came with what North Korea termed “magnanimous” assurances of Pyongyang’s commitment to Kaesong, but stopped short of the South’s demand for a binding guarantee that the North would not close the complex again in future.
The North sees offering such a safeguard as an admission of sole responsibility, but the South’s Unification Ministry insists it will continue to push for the concession on Wednesday.
“South Korea will focus on securing a guarantee that could help normalize the industrial complex,” ministry spokesman Kim Hyung-Suk said.
Looming large over the talks is the launch next Monday of the annual “Ulchi Freedom Guardian” joint military exercise, involving about 50,000 South Korean and 30,000 US troops practicing a North Korean invasion scenario.
Although the drill is largely computer-simulated, it is viewed as highly provocative by North Korea, which has already issued dire warning of its impact on stability on the peninsula.
“If the drill takes place, conditions in the region will become unpredictable and escalate to the brink of war,” the North’s ruling-party newspaper Rodong Sinmun said last month.
The Korean peninsula was gripped by several months of sustained military tensions following the North’s third nuclear test in February, with Pyongyang threatening pre-emptive nuclear strikes against the South and the United States.