S Korea offers North talks, with warning

2013-04-25 08:22
South Korean soldiers set up barricades across the road linking North Korea's Kaesong Industrial Complex at a military check point in Paju near the demilitarised zone dividing the two Koreas. (Jung Yeon-Je, AFP)

South Korean soldiers set up barricades across the road linking North Korea's Kaesong Industrial Complex at a military check point in Paju near the demilitarised zone dividing the two Koreas. (Jung Yeon-Je, AFP)

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Seoul - South Korea on Thursday formally offered North Korea talks on suspended operations at their joint Kaesong industrial zone, and hinted it might pull out entirely if Pyongyang declines.

The South said it was offering working-level talks to resolve the impasse over Kaesong, a rare symbol of inter-Korean co-operation that has become the most notable victim of escalating military tensions on the Korean peninsula.

But the offer came with an ultimatum of unspecified "significant measures" if Pyongyang fails to accept the proposal within 24 hours.

"There is no change on our stance to support the stable operation and improvement" of Kaesong, Unification Ministry Spokesperson Kim Hyung-Seok said.

"But we cannot let this situation continue as it is," he added. "If North Korea rejects our proposal... we have no choice but to take significant measures."

Kim did not elaborate on what steps might be taken, but the ultimatum suggested South Korea was considering a permanent withdrawal from the zone, which normally employs 53 000 workers at 123 South Korean companies.

$1.98bn turnover

The talks proposed by Seoul would be between the respective heads of the North and South committees that oversee Kaesong operations.

The proposal came a day after Seoul announced pan-governmental action to help firms with factories in Kaesong deal with liquidity problems caused by lost production and the cancellation of orders.

Established in 2004 and lying 10km inside North Korea, Kaesong is a crucial hard currency source for the impoverished North, through taxes and revenues, and from its cut of the workers' wages.

The project was born out the "Sunshine Policy" of inter-Korean conciliation initiated in the late 1990s by South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung which led to a historic summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il in 2000.

It operates as a collaborative economic development zone that hosts South Korean companies attracted by its source of cheap, educated, skilled labour.

Turnover in 2012 was reported at $469.5m, with accumulated turnover since 2004 standing at $1.98bn.

The Korean peninsula was already engulfed in a cycle of escalating tensions - triggered by the North's nuclear test in February - when Pyongyang decided on 3 April to block all South Korean access to Kaesong.

South likely to leave Kaesong

Angered by the South's defence minister remarks on the existence of a "military" contingency plan to protect South Korean staff in Kaesong, the North then pulled out its entire workforce on 9 April and suspended operations.

Since then it has denied repeated requests to send food and other supplies to South Koreans who opted to remain in the zone to maintain their non-running production lines.

Even given the soaring tensions, the North's decision to suspend operations at Kaesong was unexpected, as neither side has allowed previous crises to significantly affect the complex.

Permanent closure would wipe out the last remaining point of contact and co-operation between North and South, which remain technically at war after the 1950-53 Korean War was concluded with a ceasefire rather than a peace treaty.

There are currently 176 South Korean staff still in Kaesong, compared with the usual number of around 850.

"The South is likely to order all remaining personnel to pull out of Kaesong," predicted Cho Bong-Hyun of the IBK Economic Research Institute in Seoul.

"Both South and North Korea are reluctant to become the first one to mention the closure of Kaesong outright in order to avoid responsibility," Cho told AFP.

Usually hundreds of South Korean managers and other workers pass through the border crossing leading to Kaesong every day.

Some have continued to show up the border crossing on a daily basis in the unrealised hope that the North might lift the access ban.

The bulk of the 123 South Korean firms based in Kaesong are textile units, but there are also machinery, electronics and chemical manufacturers.

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