Koreas agree to further talks, inspect joint factory

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.

Korea Pool via Yonhap/AP
Suh Ho, the head of South Korea's working-level delegation (l.) shakes hands with his North Korean counterpart, Park Chol Su, during their meeting Saturday, July 6, at Tongilgak on the North Korean side of Panmunjom, which has separated the two Koreas since the Korean War. Delegates from North and South Korea began talks Saturday on restarting a stalled joint factory park that had been a symbol of cooperation between the bitter rivals.

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 Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. "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.

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