SEOUL – South and North Korea agreed Wednesday to new talks on their shuttered joint industrial park in Kaesong, after Pyongyang offered what Seoul called “forward-looking” proposals for reopening the complex.
The agreement came just hours after Seoul had announced it would start paying compensation to South Korean firms locked out of Kaesong since April — a move widely seen as presaging a permanent withdrawal.
The two Koreas have already held six rounds of fruitless talks aimed at resuming operations at the complex, and the South warned Sunday that it was “reaching the limit” of its patience.
The main sticking point has been the South’s insistence that the North provide a binding guarantee that it would not unilaterally close Kaesong in the future if the South Korean-funded park is reopened.
Pyongyang had barred South Korean entry to the park in early April as military tensions on the Korean peninsula soared, and shortly afterwards withdrew its entire 53,000-strong workforce.
In what it called a “bold and magnanimous” gesture, the North’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea (CPRK) issued Wednesday a statement promising total access to Kaesong and guaranteeing the future attendance of its workers and the safety of all South Koreans working there.
It also said both North and South should ensure that normal operations at the complex are never again “affected by any situation in any case”.
Whether that will satisfy the South’s demand for a guarantee remains to be seen, but Seoul responded positively and agreed to the CPRK’s proposal for a seventh round of talks on August 14.
“We consider the North has come up with a forward-looking attitude,” said Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Hyung-Suk.
“We hope this meeting will be able to resolve the Kaesong issue and work out measures aimed at ensuring the normalization and further development of Kaesong,” Kim said.
Born out of the “sunshine” reconciliation policy initiated in the late 1990s by then-South Korean president Kim Dae-Jung, Kaesong was established in 2004 as a rare symbol of inter-Korean cooperation.
Lying 10 kilometers across the border in North Korea, it provided an important hard currency source for the impoverished North through taxes, other revenues, and its cut of workers’ wages.
It had appeared immune to previous downward spirals in North-South relations, but finally fell victim to two months of intense military tensions that followed the North’s nuclear test in February.
Both sides blamed the other for its closure, with the North insisting that its hand was forced by hostile South Korean actions — in particular, a series of joint military exercises with the United States.
Wednesday’s CPRK statement accepted no direct responsibility for the suspension of operations at Kaesong, and stressed that preventing any recurrence was the joint duty of “North and South”.
“It still suggests that both Koreas are responsible,” said IBK Economic Research Institute analyst Cho Bong-Hyun, who felt it fell short of providing the safeguards Seoul had been asking for.
“How to narrow down differences in this matter will be a key issue in the talks. I see an uphill battle ahead,” Cho said.
The business association representing owners of the 123 South Korean companies in Kaesong said it “actively welcomed” the North’s statement.
“We hope the (South) government will accept the proposal and Kaesong can get back to normal at an early date,” it said in a statement.