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Will 'Peace Pots' Warm North-South Relations?
South Korea's unification minister says Kaesong is jumping over the last Cold War wall
Kim Tae Kyung (internews)     Print Article 
Published 2004-12-21 12:13 (KST)   
Peace pots. People buy Livingart pots, the first products made at the Kaesong Industrial Complex, at the Lotte Department Store in Seoul, Dec. 15.
©2004 Yonhap
On Dec. 15, a ceremony was held at the Kaesong Industrial Complex in North Korea to mark the start of production of an initial line of goods. On the same day, 1,000 sets of pots delivered from the Livingart's Kaesong factory to the Lotte Department Store in Sodong-dong, Seoul, sold out in only seven hours.

People showed great interest in the "North Korean-made pots." The message sent by Unification Minister Chung Dong Young to North Korea at the ceremony in Kaesong, however, was also enough to draw attention. This is because he stressed in a fairly strong tone South Korea's positive intention to get inter-Korean relations, which have been frozen, moving once again.

In his congratulatory address, Chung said, "We fully understand how, from the North's position, how North Korea might react sensitively to some of unforeseen variable that have occurred in the course of inter-Korean reconciliation and cooperation... It's unfortunate that things weren't handled a bit more wisely."

The "unforeseen variables" to which he referred were the July nixing of plans by South Korean civic groups to send a mourning party to Pyongyang for the 10th anniversary of late North Korean leader Kim Il Sung's death, and the airlift of 460 North Korean defectors from a third country in Southeast Asia to South Korea.

Chung said, "It's extremely unfortunate that because of these matters, dialogue between the authorities of both Koreas has been stuck for six months at this very important juncture, internally and externally... We officially express our regress over this."

In a Dec. 2 interview with OhmyNews, Chung said he thought the freezing of inter-Korean relations following the mourning team incident and the defector airlift was "unfortunate and regretful." This would mean he has expressed regret over the freezing of inter-Korean relations twice in a period of no more than two weeks. This was a firm expression of South Korea's will to restart dialogue with North Korea.

When the dispatch of the mourning team was stopped in July, North Korea bitterly criticized the South, even referring to President Roh Moo Hyun by name. Moreover, when the 460 defectors were brought to South Korea from Southeast Asia, North Korea called the move an "intentional act" and suspended inter-Korean dialogue.

At that time, South Korea explained that it had no choice, and that the incidents weren't intentional. The government of the Southeast Asian nation, annoyed by all the defectors, had notified Seoul that unless it brought the defectors to South Korea, it would repatriate them to the North, Seoul explained. North Korea, however, took the South Korean government's airlift of several hundred defectors as an act that blatantly threatened the North Korean regime. After this, in October, the U.S. Congress passed the North Korean Human Rights Act, which further provoked North Korea.

North Korea has until recently locked the gate, suspending dialogue between the authorities of both Koreas and refusing to permit civilians involved in inter-Korean economic cooperation to visit the North. The six-way talks to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue are floundering.

South Korea expresses strong intention to support Kaesong project

Accordingly, by expressing "official regret" over the two incidents that were the cause of the suspension of inter-Korea dialogue, the unification minister was trying to find a breakthrough to restart talks. In his congratulatory address in Kaesong, Chung said, "Our government has declared to the international community that piece is an absolute principle on which it cannot yield... Now, the world is paying attention to the choices and decisions made by the Korean Peninsula itself."

He was reminding the North of President Roh's recent comments in the United States and Europe that, "North Korea's claims that its nuclear and missile programs are a means of deterrence to protect itself against outside threats had some reason to them" and "the use of force or blockade policies were not a desirable solution."

Chung expressed the government's firm intention to support the Kaesong Industrial Complex. In fact, the North Koreans had been suspicious of the South Korean government's will concerning the Kaesong project. Originally, the plan was for 15 companies to move into the complex and operate factories by the end of this year. Because the United States is putting a break on the project using export controls on strategic goods, only one company - Livingart - was able to start producing goods. Moreover, because of this issue, two firms are still unclear as to whether they will be able to operate factories.

Loading goods from Kaesong. Livingart kitchen utensil sets are loaded on a truck heading South while Unification Minister Chung Dong Young (right), Hyundai Group CEO Hyun Jeong Eun and others applaud.
©2004 Yonhap
North Korea lacks the certainty that South Korea has the strong desire needed to overcome U.S. objections even if Seoul had the will to help. Chung said in his congratulatory address, however, "The development of the Kaesong Industrial Complex is a result of the June 15 Declaration and a peace industry jumping over the last Cold War wall in world history... Peace for cooperation and cooperation for peace must continue without end and without suspension."

He said, "In this position, the government has made all efforts so that the Kaesong Industrial Complex is internationally competitive, and it will be generous in its support in the future... I will do my best to work together with the North Korean authorities and build an environment and system so that companies can feel safe, invest and produce."

Chung specifically explained his vision for the Kaesong project. The Kaesong Industrial Complex is within two hours of Pyongyang and Nampo, and to the South, it is within one hour of the financial and transportation hubs of Seoul and Incheon. Because a special complex economic zone would be possible if Kaesong (production), Incheon (transportation) and Seoul (financial services) bonded, Kaesong could become a gate through which the two Koreas would form a inter-Korean common economic zone, and form a key point in Northeast Asian economic cooperation.

In his Dec. 2 interview with OhmyNews, Chung likened the Kaesong Industrial Complex to Shanghai's Pudong district.

"To start with the dream, if we can bring together Kaesong as a manufacturing zone, Incheon and Yeongjong Island as a transportation and circulation zone, and Seoul as a financial zone, it could be an East Asia hub that outstrips Shanghai's Pudong. With an area of 1,500 square kilometers, Kaesong, the Kaepung Peninsula, Incheon and Seoul are all within 50km of the complex. This is three times wider than Pudong, which has an area of only 500 square kilometers. The value and significance of Seoul and a financial center and Incheon as a transportation center have already been proven. Now, if only Kaesong bears out, the three could come together and bring hope that Pyongyang could change from a planned socialist economy to socialist market economy."

"We are refining comprehensive and concrete plans for inter-Korean economic cooperation."

Chung said, "Our government is refining comprehensive and concrete plans to push full scale inter-Korean cooperation." That is to say, this was a clear and public acknowledgement the government was preparing plans for inter-Korean economic cooperation.

Chung's statement was more or less at the level of, "We are ready to cooperate to further develop rail and road connections to the Kaesong complex and expand basic facilities and production capacity." As this has been said before several times, this wasn't anything really new.

In some quarters, however, some are saying this meant the "Korean-style New Deal," which the government has said it would push, might be linked to inter-Korean economic cooperation. This is to say that plans were considered to build for North Korea large amounts of social overhead capital while pushing the Korean-style New Deal policy.

It's unknown, however, whether North Korea is ready to open the gate. Of course, there are some signs of an attitude shift. On Dec. 8, Pyongyang permitted Andong Hemp Weaving president Kim Jeong Tae to visit the North. This was the first time in almost five months. The permitting of Chung Dong Young, who is not only South Korea's unification minister but also a powerful figure in the southern ruling party, was also significant, even if it was at the invitation of North Korea itself.

Some had hoped that there might naturally be contact between high-ranking North and South Korean figures with Chung attending the Kaesong ceremony alongside major North Korean individuals. Nobody that high-ranking, however, showed up from the Northern side, Pyongyang sending the head of its special economic zone bureau, Ju Dong Chan. Compared to South Korea's active attitude, North Korea's attitude is still chilly.

Ju said, "I am pleased that the Korean people have combined their strength to produce goods," but he added, "It's regretful that the project was delayed." Park Hyong Chol, an advisor at the special economic zone bureau, said, "I'm pleased that the we have pooled our strength to make goods. It's unfortunate, however, that we agreed all the factories would be completed by December, but only one has been completed so far. As Ju gave his speech, he failed to mention even once the names of Minister Chung or Hyundai Group president Hyun Jeong Eun.

Still-chilly North Korea

Ultimately, the road ahead for the project is problematic. Fifteen firms are to move in to the 28,000 pyong pilot site at the Kaesong complex, but this has seen many tribulations. The barriers to resolve for the next stage, in which 250 companies are to move into 1 million pyong of space, are much larger.

In order to activate the Kaesong complex, the issue of exports of strategic goods must be resolved. One cannot hope for active cooperation with the United States, but Korea does have the homework of getting Washington to assume at least an indifferent posture on the matter. Because the Kaesong complex can survive only if its products can be sold in the United States, the world's largest export market, a resolution to the North Korean nuclear issue and improvements in North Korea-U.S. relations are necessary.

Ultimately, the following words by Unification Minister Chung represent the earnest wish of the current South Korean government.

"It's the time for us to carefully think about and decide what to do for peace and prosperity, earnestly desired by South and North. There is nothing we can't resolve if we respect and understand each other's positions and solve issues through dialogue. Brisk inter-Korean communication would also help realize peace and cooperation."
©2004 OhmyNews

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