SEOUL — South Korean business owners and managers will be permitted to reenter a jointly-run border industrial complex for talks, North Korea said Tuesday, in an initial sign that Pyongyang wants to restore badly damaged ties with its neighbor.
The Kaesong Industrial Complex, the lone remaining symbol of inter-Korean cooperation, has been dormant since early April, when North Korea banned South Koreans from the site and pulled out its own 53,000 workers. But the North said Tuesday it would consider “any discussion on the normalization” of the facility if South Korean business owners and managers pay a visit.
The North’s offer revives hope of salvaging the Kaesong facility, whose shuttering was the main casualty from a period of tense back-and-forth threats on the peninsula earlier this year. But the offer puts Seoul in a tricky position, because it doesn’t match South Korea’s own Kaesong proposal, which calls for government talks before any workers can return.
South Korea has made at least three separate proposals for government talks, most recently on May 14, when its Ministry of Unification suggested discussions at the border “truce village” of Panmunjom.
“If North Korea genuinely cares about improving inter-Korean relations, it should participate in government-level talks instead of contacting private companies or organizations,” a unification ministry spokesman said Tuesday.
The offer from the North came at the bottom of a statement criticizing the South for refusing to participate in a proposed ceremony to mark the 13th anniversary of a summit between leaders Kim Jong Il and Kim Dae-jung. The North last week had invited a South Korean civic group to help organize the ceremony, which is proposed for June 15. But Seoul said the invitation was inappropriate — an attempt to reach around the government and sow internal discord in the South.
“The reckless remarks made by the South Korean authorities go to fully prove that they do not want improvement of inter-Korean relations, dialogue and detente,” the North said Tuesday in its statement, which was attributed to a spokesman for the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea. The spokesman added that if South Korean business owners and managers do indeed visit Kaesong, “South Korean authorities do not need to worry about their safety.”
The Kaesong facility, located six miles north of the demilitarized border, was opened in 2004 during a period of relative peace between the North and South. The facility paired South Korean small- and medium-size businesses with more than 50,000 North Korean workers, making between $2 to $3 per day. The South provided the electricity and sewage treatment, as well as meals for the workers.
South Koreans initially hoped Kaesong could serve as a starter kit for North Korean capitalism, but the North instead used it as in isolated, money-making bubble, with workers surrendering most of their wages to the government.
The North in early April barricaded South Korean managers and vehicles from entering, but it did allow South Koreans already at the site to leave freely. The last of those workers departed May 3, after settling taxes and wages owed to the North.
“North Korea has to pay a price” for recent provocations and the Kaesong closure, South Korean President Park Geun-hye said earlier this month during her visit to the United States. “Companies had believed in the agreement that was made and actually went to invest in the Kaesong industrial complex, but [the North] suddenly completely dismissed and disregarded this agreement overnight.”
Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report.