Korean Peninsula Looks More Divided than Ever

21 03 2016

Kaesong Industrial Park closing(AFP, Daily Mail, 12 February 2016) North and South Korea’s perennially volatile relations seem headed for a new and potentially dangerous low, with all official lines of communication cut off and a host of tension-raising issues on the near horizon.

The two rivals, who have remained technically at war over the past six decades, have faced and weathered numerous crises in the past, but the current situation feels particularly grim in the wake of the North’s recent nuclear test and long-range rocket launch.

Any hope of compromise or dialogue seems to have been indefinitely shelved, with a leader in Pyongyang confirming an unwavering commitment to nuclear weapons development, and a counterpart in Seoul determined to react firmly — and proactively — to any North Korean provocation.

And the standoff is taking on wider Cold War-like dimensions, with the divisions between the main parties to the North Korean nuclear issue — China and Russia on one side, the US, South Korea and Japan on the other — increasingly stark and antagonistic.

The new mood on the divided peninsula played out this week in the effective termination of the sole remaining North-South cooperation project — the Kaesong joint industrial zone lying 10 kilometres (six miles) over the border in North Korea.

– A talisman for ties –

Despite its obvious vulnerabilities, Kaesong had taken on a talismanic image by riding out pretty much every inter-Korean crisis thrown up since it opened for business in 2004.

“In a way, it’s a miracle it lasted that long,” said Leonid Petrov, an expert on North Korea at the Australian National University.

But on Wednesday, Seoul announced it was suspending all operations of the 124 South Korean companies in Kaesong, and yesterday Pyongyang responded by expelling all the firms’ managers and freezing their factories’ assets.

The North placed the complex under military control, while the South cut off all power and water supplies.

“I don’t see any way back for Kaesong now,” Petrov said. “It’s gone too far and there’s no real will in the North or South to work it out.”

Kaesong was born out of the “sunshine” reconciliation policy of the late 1990s.

One of the roles initially envisaged by Seoul was of Kaesong as a beachhead for market reforms in North Korea that would spread from the complex and expose tens of thousands to the outside world’s way of doing business.

Although that vision never materialised, some analysts still mourned its demise for closing a small but crucial open door on the world’s most heavily-militarised border.

– ‘Great leap backwards’ –

“With no Kaesong, South and North Koreans will no longer be in contact anywhere on a regular basis. That is a great leap backwards,” Aidan Foster-Carter, a Korea expert based in Britain, wrote for the NK News website.

Chang Yong-Seok, a senior researcher at the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University, said one of Kaesong’s most important contributions had been to help keep inter-Korean rivalries in check.

“The Koreas both had a stake in Kaesong so they were able to restrain each other in some ways, but now that has all gone out the window,” Chang said.

The space for communication between Seoul and Pyongyang shrank further on Thursday, when the North announced it was cutting the last two remaining communication hotlines with the South.

The hotlines themselves have never been used for conversational diplomacy, but they were key to setting up meetings where such discussions could take place.

The severing of all contacts comes ahead of a period when crisis-control talks could be most needed.

– Tensions ahead –

North Korea will likely react strongly to whatever sanctions the UN Security Council eventually agrees to impose over its nuclear test and rocket launch.

Then in March, South Korean and the United States will kick off a series of annual military drills that the North views as rehearsals for invasion and which always see a spike in tensions.

Pyongyang’s claims of provocation over the exercises should be especially shrill this time, as Seoul and Washington also begin talks on deploying an advanced US missile shield in South Korea.

“South Korea and the US have said the drills will be on an even larger scale than usual which is sure to meet a big backlash from North Korea,” said Chang.

“So, with all this, I think we’re going to see tensions running at a level incomparable to previous years,” he added.

Advertisements




Koreas agree to further talks, inspect joint factory

9 07 2013

North-South-Korea-factory-talks_2013.07.08(By Steven Borowiec, The Christian Science Monitor, 8 July 2013) After 16 hours of negotiation North Korea agreed in principle to normalize operations at the inter-Korean industrial complex, which has been idle for nearly three months.

North Korea met over the weekend with South Korea on its side of Panmunjom Peace Village, taking steps to normalize operations at the jointly-maintained Kaesong Industrial park – an idled symbol of inter-Korean economic cooperation.

North Korea agreed to permit businessmen to visit the complex Wednesday to check out the facilities that have been idle since April, when North Korea blocked South Korean workers from entering the complex and then pulled out some 53,000 of its own workers. The two Koreas are planning to hold talks Wednesday about restarting business at Kaesong.

Analysts say that for North Korea, restarting operations at Kaesong could be less important than using the negotiations to extract larger forms of support from South Korea.

“The regime in North Korea wants to appear cooperative while working for something more substantial from South Korea, something like unconditional aid and investment,” says Leonid Petrov, a researcher in Korean studies at the Australian National University. “Aid, sponsorship, charity – those are the things they’re most interested in.”

In fact, says Dr. Petrov, domestic media reported that North Korea has dispatched its workers in provinces away from the complex, which indicates that perhaps it doesn’t plan to resume operations there in the near future.

More than 120 South Korean companies once operated at Kaesong, which opened in 2004 as a project to pair South Korean manufacturers with inexpensive North Korean labor. South Korean companies paid workers wages that were high by North Korean standards. In 2012, the industrial park, largely seen as an achievement in inter-Korea ties, produced $470 million worth of goods and earned North Korea about $80 million in workers’ wages, according to South Korea’s Ministry of Unification.

Before the talks, North Korea gave permission to South Korean businessmen to visit the complex, but the Park Geun-hye government in Seoul insisted that inter-Korean exchange go through the government, not through private groups or individuals.

On June 9, the Koreas held working-level talks, the first inter-Korean talks for two years. Those were meant to be preliminary discussions ahead of minister level talks that were scheduled for later that week, but the second talks were called off after Seoul and Pyongyang couldn’t agree on the rank of the delegation leaders.

In the first few months of this year, North Korea was exceptionally hostile with its rhetoric, making violent threats against Seoul and Washington. Analysts say the more conciliatory approach seen in this weekend’s agreement to allow visits is part of a typical pattern of behavior where Pyongyang alternates threats with moves toward rapprochement.

“North Korea usually comes out swinging in the first half of the year, then in the second half launches a kind of peace offensive,” says Sung-yoon Lee, assistant professor of Korean studies at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University. “It was preordained that North Korea would want to talk about restarting the [Kaesong] complex now.”

Coming into this weekend’s negotiations, South Korea said it would seek a written guarantee from North Korea that Pyongyang would never again unilaterally shut down the complex. Analysts see this as a potential stumbling block in Wednesday’s scheduled talks; North Korea may object to making any promises about what it will do regarding facilities that are in its territory.