Kaesong Edges Closer to the Rubicon

North and South Korea are both contemplating irreversible change to the Kaesong Industrial Complex.

The North’s chief delegate to Thursday’s sixth round of inter-Korean talks claimed that Pyongyang can operate the complex even without South Korea, threatening that “if the Kaesong light manufacturing zone cooperative project breaks down, then our military will redeploy to the industrial zone area of the Military Demarcation Line.” In other words, if re-opening the complex proves to be impossible, the North will confiscate the South Korean fixtures and fittings contained therein, and promptly re-station the 2nd Corps of the Chosun People’s Army on the site.

Faced with this threat, the South Korean government did not flinch, however, and made explicit reference to a dramatic choice of its own: the metaphorical “crossing of the Rubicon.” In a statement, the Ministry of Unification noted dryly that “if North Korea does not show a sincere attitude to the issue of recurrence prevention policy, the government will have no choice but to take a major decision.”

In one draft of the “agreement that never was”, which the North Korean side unilaterally distributed to South Korean journalists following the breakdown of the talks, it stated that there should be “no military or political action that might hinder the normal management of the Kaesong Industrial Complex.” At first glance this looks like a plausible stab at a recurrence prevention policy, and one may feel that South Korea has acted in bad faith by rejecting it. But of course, such a clause does not address the granular detail of North Korea’s approach to the business of politics. Naturally, Pyongyang could still use things like military drills involving South Korea as a pretext to accuse Seoul of violating the agreement, and thus close the Kaesong Complex at a time of its choosing.

In short, North Korea is clearly unwilling to abandon the politicization of Kaesong (or anything else, for that matter) in favor of the economic benefits that would accrue from both the safe operation of the economic zone and from the “demonstration effect” to would-be Chinese investors that managing it competently could provide. The Kim Jong Eun regime may have come to the negotiating table in response to Chinese pressure, but it has not shown any inclination to negotiate in good faith, or to apologize for closing Kaesong in the first place.

South Korea’s desire is that Kaesong never be allowed to grind to a halt due to largely unrelated political factors. However, North Korea is not ready to accept this. Politics dominate, and against this backdrop of utter inflexibility they have jumped into closing the place down. They claim this is because their “supreme dignity has been debased,” but in truth they did it all by themselves. And since they refuse to step up and say “Closing the Kaesong Industrial Complex was a mistake,” there is surely also little hope of them declaring, “There will be no more shutdowns due to slurs upon our supreme dignity”.

Kim Jong Eun is the only official in “Suryong-ist” North Korea who can change this state of affairs. Thus he has a decision to make. Alas, then, the attitude he has exhibited thus far offers little hope. He has shown no great administrative talent, or any interest in the kind of give and take that characterizes successful diplomacy. Under this kind of leadership, experienced officials under him have little room for maneuver.

Therefore, while Seoul should continue to demand recurrence prevention measures, it must also deliberate deeply whether or not there is just cause to continue with Kaesong at all. Agreement on this should not be with North Korea, though; rather, it should be with the South Korean people. Most South Korean citizens like President Park Geun Hye’s firm, principled approach to North Korea policy, but a consensus on the maintenance (or not) of Kaesong is still far off. Therefore, the government is duty-bound to immediately enter into a policy dialogue.

There are two elements to consider. First, today’s state of affairs confirms once again the failure of the Sunshine Policy hypothesis that “North Korea changes when we cooperate with it.” Although economic interactions are necessary under all governments, the North Korean authorities have demonstrated the falsity of the belief that such interactions with them might prompt “reform and opening,” or indeed any other kind of positive change.

However, we do still need ponder the other side of the coin: the positive influence Kaesong has had over the course of a decade on both the workers who labored in it and the population of Kaesong City. That, at least, is worthy of consideration.

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