The one thread linking peace between North and South Korea is close to snapping, but tension on the peninsula hasn’t reached a point of no return, a leading Korea watcher says.
Last month, North Korea pulled 53,000 workers from the Kaesong industrial complex in response to UN sanctions. The facility, which lies just inside North Korea, has employed workers from both sides of the border since 2004.
The future of the complex was thrown into further doubt last week, when Seoul pulled all but seven of its workers from the zone.
However, Dr Emma Campbell, from the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific, says the situation can be salvaged, despite Pyongyang now threatening to close down the complex altogether. Speaking to ABC Radio Australia, Campbell said that South Korean workers who had already left were hoping to return as soon as next week.
“I think for the South Koreans there is a huge incentive to go back. There’s been massive investment in the Kesong industiral complex,” she said.
Every day owners of small and medium sized businesses stayed away, huge amounts of money were lost.
While the Kaesong industrial complex was far from essential to the South Korean economy, in was an important barometer, in terms of representing the relationship between North and South Korea.
“I think it creates some uncertainty for the general South Korean economy when the Kaesong industrial complex is not being run successfully,” Campbell said.
“So I think Kaesong is important for the South, symbolically, if not, financially.”
Campbell was hopeful the complex’s operations could continue, given it had survived the 2010 sinking of a South Korean warship by a North Korean torpedo, along with contentious missile launches by the North.
“I think Kaesong is one of those places where the interests of both North and South are met, through the continuation of the Kaesong project, so I am hopeful that the issue will be resolved,” Campbell said.
Talking was the only way of doing that, she maintained.
“If we want to resolve not only the Kaesong issue, but also the issue of the North’s nuclear program, and more importantly, the humanitarian situation of people in the North, then engagement and talking is the only way forward.”
Under South Korean law, the government can draw on the inter-Korean cooperation fund, to support firms at the complex if production is halted for more than a month.
During a meeting on Wednesday, it was agreed emergency funding would be given to South Korean businesses that had been forced to cease trading.