Kaesong to Re-open
Throughout the last half century, the two Koreas have carried out what can at best be called a rocky relationship.
Officially still at war, the two have gone in radically different directions. South Korea has become one of globalization’s success stories, building an economy that barely existed prior to the war into the twelfth largest in the world.
By contrast, North Korea has struggled with famine and has a dictatorial regime known for its horrific human rights records.
About a decade ago, relations between the two countries seemed to be improving. While the North’s sabre rattling never really stopped, it was reduced to the point that the two countries were able to open an industrial park in Kaesong in 2004.
Seen by some as a small but hopeful step toward the reunification of the peninsula and by others primarily as an olive branch that could help to prevent a re-ignition of the conflict, the plant was intended to be both a symbol of cooperation and a boon to the struggling economy of the North.
Back in April, relations between the two countries hit a low point, and the North told the South Koreans, who crossed the border to work there, to leave the facility and return home, effectively shutting the operation.
At that time, some feared the worst as the young and largely unknown leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, appeared as though he might be preparing for military action against the South. While there had been skirmishes over fishing waters and a South Korean island had been shelled in recent years, that was the first time the North had closed the facility since its opening.
Last week, after five long months, the South Koreans who work at the facility were allowed to return.
Some companies have already begun operating close to full capacity while others will take a while longer as they have to run tests on equipment that has been sitting unused. 46 companies that work there now have to return insurance payments that were given to them by the South Korean government, but they’ll be happy to do so since that means getting their businesses up and running again.
In just eight years, the facility, which combines North Korean priced labour with South Korean technological expertise, has over $2 billion in production.
The reopening of the facility hardly signals the end of tensions between these two neighbours. Nautical boundaries, missile tests, and other issues will continue to be points of contention as the regime in the North seeks to show strength both at home and abroad.
Even so, the reopening of the plant serves both as a boon to workers in the North who have seen their dire financial straits turn to worse in the past several months and an indication that relations have at least gotten back to where they were before the facility was closed. Events over the course of this year raise serious doubts over whether any Koreans alive today will see the reunification of North and South, but this past week suggests that they at least won’t have to see another war.