Inter-Korean co-operation severed

  • 11/02/2016
South Korean soldiers stand guard at a gateway which leads to the Kaesong Industrial Complex (Reuters)
South Korean soldiers stand guard at a gateway which leads to the Kaesong Industrial Complex (Reuters)

By Ju-min Park

Dozens of South Korean trucks have returned across the North Korean border, laden with equipment and goods from the Kaesong Industrial Complex, after Seoul suspended operations there as punishment for the North's rocket launch.

Halting activity at the park, where 124 South Korean companies employed about 55,000 North Koreans, cuts the last significant vestige of North-South co-operation -- a rare opportunity for Koreans divided by the 1950-53 war to interact on a daily basis.

Isolated North Korea faces mounting pressure following what it says was a satellite launch on Sunday (local time). Washington, among others, said it was a ballistic missile test, and like last month's nuclear test, a violation of United Nations resolutions.

The top military officers from the United States, South Korea and Japan agreed late on Wednesday to step up information-sharing and co-ordination of security efforts in light of increasing North Korean threats. Earlier, the US Senate voted unanimously in favour of tougher sanctions.

At the Kaesong complex, about 54km northwest of Seoul, North Korean workers were given a taste of life in the south, including snack foods like Choco Pies and toiletries that were resold as luxury items in the North.

They also rubbed shoulders with their managers from South Korea. Supporters of the project said that kind of contact was important in promoting inter-Korean understanding, despite concerns that isolated Pyongyang might have used proceeds from Kaesong to help fund its nuclear and missile programs.

Except for Kaesong, both countries forbid their citizens from communicating with each other across the world's most fortified frontier.

"We piled up instant noodles, breads and drinks in our warehouse so North Korean workers could come here and eat freely," said Lee Jong-ku, who runs a firm that installs electrical equipment for apparel factories in Kaesong. "We don't mind them eating our food, because we only care about them working hard."

For the North, the revenue opportunity from Kaesong -- US$110 million in wages and fees in 2015 -- was deemed worth the risk of exposing its workers to influences from the prosperous South. In recent years, North Koreans have had increasing access to contraband media, exposing them to life in the South and China.

Still, Pyongyang took precautions to ensure the workers it hand-picked for the complex had minimal contact with their South Korean managers that could be potentially subversive.

"These North Korean workers are strongly armed ideologically," said Koo Ja-ick, who was waiting on the south side of the border on his way to Kaesong, where he has worked at an apparel company for the past four years.

"They never act individually. They always work and move in a group of two, even manager-level people do so. They never go to the bathroom by themselves -- always in groups," he said.