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A very good sign that North Korea is bluffing about war

The inter-Korean industrial complex of Kaesong is seen from a South Korean observation tower in Paju. (JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images)

We've been here before. North Korea is threatening war, readying its military, issuing a series of increasingly ominous and categorical declarations about its intentions. It's even cut a crucial inter-Korean phone line. It's sending just about every possible signal that a country might send before it goes to war.

Except that North Korea has done most of these things before, including severing the phone line. So how are we supposed to tell the difference between the bluffs and a real, earnest ambition to start a full-scale war? There's no way to know for certain short of reading Kim Jong Un's mind, of course. But we do have one pretty good metric with which to judge the country's intentions: the Kaesong Industrial Complex.

The Kaesong Industrial Complex, located just across the northern side of the border, is staffed by South and North Koreans. It can't function without Pyongyang's daily okay. If the North suddenly shuts down Kaesong at some point, watch out. But as long as it's still running, as it has been throughout the provocations and tensions of the last few weeks, we can probably --  probably -- assume that North Korea is not actually planning to launch a war.

North and South Korea opened the jointly run Kaesong industrial facility in 2002. At the time, Seoul had a policy of "sunshine" with Pyongyang, trying to coexist peacefully with its neighbor. The plant was meant to give both countries an incentive to cooperate. South Korean businesses get a source of dirt-cheap North Korean labor -- we're talking salaries about a quarter of a Chinese manual laborer's -- while the North gets a source of the hard currency it so badly needs to survive.

Kaesong is still running smoothly, according to an AP story by Hyung-Jin Kim and Sam Kim, who say this demonstrates that Pyongyang is "choosing the factory's infusion of hard currency over yet another provocation." They also note that North Korea has so far not chosen to sever three other hotlines that are used to keep North and South Korean air-traffic controllers in touch.

For all North Korea's bluster, it's stopped short of what would seem to be an easy choice if it were about to start a war with South Korea. If you're Pyongyang, you keep the Kaesong plant open only if you're looking forward to next month's payroll checks. And you know you can only count on that if you're not also turning the country that writes those checks into a "sea of flames," as North Korea so often threatens.

If anything, North Korea appears to be going to lengths to keep the plant running. Here's a snippet from the AP story:

Without the [now-severed military] hotline, the governments, which lack diplomatic relations, used middlemen. North Korea verbally approved the crossing Thursday of hundreds of South Koreans by telling South Koreans at a management office at the Kaesong factory. Those South Koreans then called officials in South Korea.

Both governments prohibit direct contact with citizens on the other side, but Kaesong has separate telephone lines that allow South Korean managers there to communicate with people in South Korea.

Factory managers at Kaesong reached by The Associated Press by telephone at the factory said the overall mood there is normal.

A South Korean executive who employs 1,400 North Korean workers told the AP, a day after returning from the Kaesong plant for a visit, "Tension rises almost every year when it's time for the U.S.-South Korean drills to take place, but as soon as those drills end, things quickly return to normal." He added, "I think and hope that this time won't be different."



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Max Fisher · March 28, 2013

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