North and South Korea agreed Wednesday to restart the jointly-operated Kaesong industrial park, languishing since April, following a pledge from Pyongyang to never shut it down again, the two sides said in a joint statement.
According to the five-point statement, issued following a day of intense negotiations, the two Koreas agreed to bring in international investors to the factory park—a condition proposed by Seoul to make Pyongyang less likely to take action against it in the future, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported.
But the two sides were unable to agree on a date for reopening the zone, located in the North’s Kaesong city along the border, saying it depends on how quickly the 123 South Korean factories located there can undergo maintenance checkups on their equipment.
A joint committee will be established to oversee the future operation of the park and to determine compensation for South Korean plants impacted by the North’s decision in early April to shutter the key cooperation project by pulling its 53,000 workers out, citing rising cross-border tensions.
Yonhap quoted South Korean officials as saying that Wednesday’s negotiations focused on their demand for a clear guarantee from North Korea that it would never again close the zone.
Pyongyang has placed the blame for the park closure squarely on Seoul, saying the South’s decision to hold joint military exercises with the U.S. had threatened its security. South Korea and the U.S. are set to launch annual joint exercises again on Monday.
The North toned down its rhetoric Wednesday and said that “both sides” should work together to ensure that the park never shuts its gates again.
“The South and the North will prevent the current suspension of the Kaesong industrial complex caused by the workers' withdrawal from being repeated again,” the joint statement said.
The North had proposed Wednesday’s talks last week, hours after Seoul announced it would begin paying U.S. $250 million in compensation to the businesses impacted by Kaesong's closure—a move widely seen as the first step towards a permanent withdrawal.
The two Koreas had met six times previously before hammering out the agreement to reopen the park.
Fresh step in relations
Yong Seok Chang, senior researcher of the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University, said that the agreement represents important progress for relations between the two countries.
“I think that by each taking a step back, South and North Korea showed they were determined to make a difficult decision with flexibility,” he told RFA’s Korean Service.
“It was a meaningful discussion on developing the relationship between South and North, and to gain and keep a basic toehold for future negotiations.”
Agence France-Presse quoted South Korean President Park Geun-Hye as saying that she hopes the agreement will “set the stage for a fresh start in relations” between the two countries.
South Korean company owners in Kaesong, who had complained that their firms were being used as pawns in a political game, lauded Wednesday’s decision.
“We will do our best to help the Kaesong industrial park boost its international competitiveness and become a globally viable place for investment,” AFP reported, citing an association statement.
Kaesong industrial park, formed in 2004 following an unprecedented inter-Korean summit four years earlier, is a major hard currency earner for North Korea—last year producing some U.S. $80 million in wages for the hermit kingdom’s workers, most of whom were women on assembly lines.
The zone weathered nearly a decade of tension between the North and South before its shutdown in the aftermath of North Korea’s third nuclear test in February.
The test and an earlier rocket launch were in violation of international sanctions that ban North Korea from developing missile or nuclear technology, prompting the U.N. Security Council to adopt tough sanctions against the country in March.
Pyongyang began issuing vitriolic war rhetoric after the measures were imposed, raising ominous prospects of a nuclear conflict on the Korean peninsula, but tensions have lessened in recent months.
Reported by RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Bong Park. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.