Kaesong Update: Deteriorating relations and trade

This week, The South Korean government announced that if the North unilaterally files formal charges against a detained South Korean worker it will reevaluate regulations for its citizens to enter the zone which would require each border crosser to obtain a written guarantee of his safety from Pyongyang before leaving South Korea.  Although the number of South Korean workers allowed to cross the DMZ was reduced after the North’s missile launch, this would effectively prevent South Korean managers from entering the Kaesong Zone and would likely bring an end to operations there.  According to Yonhap:

South Koreans may be barred from visiting North Korea if the communist country takes legal action against a Hyundai Asan employee who has been unlawfully detained by Pyongyang, a government source said Sunday.

The Hyundai employee, who works at the Kaesong Industrial Complex and is identified only by his family name of Yu, has been held for 28 days for allegedly criticizing Pyongyang’s political system and trying to lure a North Korean female worker to defect to the South.

The worker in his 40s has yet to be interviewed by South Korean authorities to determine the exact nature of the detention.

“Under the special arrangement governing the Kaesong complex, the two Koreas must reach an understanding on how to deal with serious offenses involving South Koreans (that carry punishments) exceeding warnings, fines and expulsions,” the source, who declined to be identified, said.

“If Pyongyang takes unilateral action to indict the worker, it will be a violation of the fundamental rules related to cross-border interactions and will compel Seoul to rethink its stance on allowing South Korean to visit the North,” the source stressed.

The bilateral agreement makes clear that Pyongyang should respect the rights of South Korean workers, dwellings and property in Kaesong and the special tourist region in Mount Kumgang on the east coast. The latter has been closed since the shooting death of a female tourist by North Korean guards last July.

He said that if protection for South Koreans nationals cannot be ensured, Seoul will be compelled to review its policies on allowing visits from scratch.

“If this is the case, even employees working at Kaesong will have to get individual, written permission from North Korea that they will not be detained,” the official said.

Such a move could effectively make it hard for South Koreans to go to North Korea, crippling normal operations at the complex just north of the demilitarized zone that separates the two countries.

As of March, 101 South Korean factories operated in the complex, employing about 39,000 North Korean workers. The Kaesong park opened in 2005 and produces labor-intensive goods such as clothing, kitchen wares and watches. (Yonhap)

Given the trajectory of North-South relations this year, it is no surprise that inter-Korean trade dropped 30% in March.  According to Yonhap:

Monthly trade between South and North Korea fell more than 30 percent on-year in March, as tensions ran high over South Korea-U.S. joint military exercise, government data showed Monday.

The two Koreas exchanged goods and services worth US$108.74 million over the last month, down 31.1 percent from $157.9 million in the same period in 2008, the data from the Unification Ministry said.

North Korea sealed the border three times in March, disrupting South Korean production in a joint industrial complex in the North’s border town of Kaesong. Pyongyang imposed the ban in retaliation against a joint military exercise South Korea staged with the United States from March 9 to 20 south of the border.

Pyongyang blasted the joint exercise as a rehearsal for a “second Korean War,” while the two allies say the annual drill is purely defensive.

More than 100 South Korean firms operate in the Kaesong industrial venture, just an hour’s drive from Seoul, joining their capital and technology with North Korea’s cheap but skilled labor.

North Korea demanded the South raise wages, pay fees for land use and revise existing contracts for the Kaesong venture during inter-Korean government talks last week, the first official dialogue in more than a year. Seoul is gathering opinion from South Korean firms and plans to respond to the North Korean demand as early as this week.

Hyundai Asan, which has seen a dramatic reversal of fortune in the last year, has launched a new tourism project to make up some of its lost revenue.  Unable to offer trips to Kaesong and Kumgangsan, they are still trying to capitalize on the mystery of the DPRK:

Hyundai Asan said its new programme includes one-day tours costing 46,000 won (34 dollars) per person to border areas at Paju and Yeoncheon, north of Seoul.

Two-day tours to the border area at Yanggu, 175 kilometres northeast of Seoul, and to Mount Sorak on the east coast, will cost 118,000 won.

“Along with trips to front-line fences, tourists will be allowed to see wildlife and other places which remained untouched for decades,” a Hyundai Asan official told AFP.

Visitors will not be allowed inside the DMZ itself.

Hyundai Asan said the new programme would help ease its financial woes, which began when a South Korean woman tourist was shot dead when she strayed into a military zone at Kumgang last July.

The Seoul government halted tours to Kumgang after the shooting, while Pyongyang barred the one-day tours to Kaesong city as relations worsened.

The company’s other major joint project, the joint industrial complex near Kaesong city, is also facing problems due to sour cross-border ties.

The communist North has expelled hundreds of South Korean staff and restricted access to the Seoul-funded complex.

On March 30 it detained a Hyundai Asan employee for allegedly criticising the North’s regime and trying to persuade a local woman worker to defect.

Read the full stories below:
Gov’t warns it can bar S. Koreans from visiting N. Korea

Inter-Korean trade drops 30 percent in March during political tension

South Korean firm to start tours along North Korea border
Channel News Asia


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