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(News Focus) Shutdown of Kaesong complex is double-edged sword for Seoul: experts

All Headlines 19:45 March 09, 2016

SEOUL, March 9 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's decision to shut down a joint industrial complex in North Korea helped elicit the international community's tougher sanctions on the North, but it has caused Seoul to lose a key point of leverage over Pyongyang, experts here said Wednesday.

A month ago, South Korea took its toughest non-military action against North Korea over its Jan. 6 nuclear test and long-range rocket launch on Feb. 7 -- the shutdown of the Kaesong Industrial Complex in the North's border city of the same name.

More than 120 South Korean firms operated factories at the complex, some 50 kilometers northwest of Seoul, employing more than 54,000 North Korean workers to produce labor-intensive goods, such as clothes and utensils.

The complex opened in 2004 as a result of the first inter-Korean summit in 2000. It served as a major revenue source for the cash-strapped North, while South Korea benefited from cheap but skilled North Korean labor.

Seoul's decision to end the last symbol of inter-Korean reconciliation is an indication of its determination to prevent money generated from the factory zone from bankrolling the North's nuclear and missile programs.

Experts said that South Korea's move helped the United Nations Security Council (USNC) adopt a fresh resolution for what's called "the strongest set of sanctions in more than two decades."

"I think that Seoul's decision to shut down the zone played a critical role in prodding China into joining the UNSC's endorsement of tougher sanctions on the North," said Yoo Ho-yeol, executive vice chairperson of the National Unification Advisory Council, a presidential advisory panel.

It took more than 50 days for the USNC to adopt a new resolution mainly because China had been lukewarm about slapping tougher sanctions apparently out of concerns that pushing the North too hard may destabilize North Korea, sparking border insecurity.

But the shutdown of the Kaesong complex also means that the only channel for inter-Korean cooperation has been cut off, prompting Seoul to lose its last remaining leverage over the North, other analysts claimed.

South Korea did not close the factory zone even when North Korea staged deadly attacks in 2010 -- the sinking of a South Korean warship and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island.

But in April 2013, the North abruptly shut down the complex for about four months, citing what it called heightened tension sparked by a joint military drill between Seoul and Washington. In February of that year, the North had conducted its third nuke test.

"If North Korea's nuclear issue is not resolved, it would be impossible for South and North Korea to seek any reconciliation as long as President Park Geun-hye is in office," said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior researcher at the Sejong Institute.

Park's single five-year term ends in early 2018, and by law, she cannot seek re-election.

"Inter-Korean relations have returned to a confrontational mode with no reconciliation as the government has suspended civilian exchanges with the North," Cheong said.

Seoul-Pyongyang relations underwent a short-lived conciliatory mood last year following their rare deal in August on easing military tension. As part of the deal, the two Koreas held reunions of families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War in October 2015.

But the North's latest provocations have completely changed the shape of regional security.

"Seoul's decision to shut down the factory zone might have been the most painful for North Korea," said Kim Yong-hyun, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University. "But at the same time, South Korea too has lost its card to prod the North."

Reflecting this, the North in retaliation expelled all South Koreans staying at the complex and froze their assets.

North Korea designated the zone a military-controlled area and cut off two main inter-Korean communication channels.

"If six-party talks on the North's denuclearization or other types of discussions are held, North Korea are likely to further shun the South as a dialogue partner due to deep distrust between them," Cheong said.

On Tuesday, South Korea unveiled a set of its own sanctions against North Korea which included a ban on the entry of vessels into South Korea that have sailed to North Korea in the past 180 days.

The government also blacklisted more than 30 key North Korean officials and organizations suspected of being involved in the development of weapons of mass destruction.

sooyeon@yna.co.kr
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