By Kim Kwang-tae
SEOUL, March 9 (Yonhap) -- Cho Kyung-joo was upbeat when he heard the breaking news that the leaders of South Korea and North Korea will meet next month after months of warlike rhetoric and tensions.
The 63-year-old South Korean businessman has ample reasons to hope that the two Cold War enemies will build on their newfound rapprochement.
At stake is the US$11.1 million porcelain factory he set up at the now-shuttered inter-Korean joint factory park in North Korea's border city of Kaesong.
Cho is one of more than 120 South Korean businessmen who were forced to leave behind their equipment, raw materials and finished goods at Kaesong in 2016 when Seoul suddenly pulled the plug on the factory park.
The head of Seokchon Pottery Co. said he hopes that the summit between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un could ease tensions and eventually lay the groundwork for the resumption of operations at the factory park.
"I feel very good," Cho said of the planned summit during an interview with Yonhap News Agency at his office in Incheon, a port city just west of Seoul. "The summit could contribute to the resumption of the factory park."
The cautious optimism represents a dramatic turnaround from what Cho described as feeling like the sky was falling in February 2016 when he was told by South Korea's then-conservative government to pack up and leave Kaesong.
South Korea shuttered the last remaining economic cooperation project with North Korea to punish Pyongyang for its fourth nuclear test and long-range rocket launch in 2016.
Cho and other businessmen have so far made unsuccessful bids to visit the factory park for an inspection of their facilities.
The resumption of operations at the factory park remains elusive amid tensions over North Korea's nuclear and missile programs. Complicating the matter is U.S. support for the 2016 decision to shut down the Kaesong Complex and U.N. sanctions that ban, among other things, transfers of bulk cash to Pyongyang.
South Korean firms have so far paid US$550 million to North Korea for North Korean workers' wages, according to the Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs. There has been speculation that some of the money may have been used for Pyongyang's nuclear and missile development.
Still, the planned summit -- which was unimaginable just a few months ago -- is fueling guarded optimism among South Korean businessmen who had operated factories in the factory park.
Shin Han-yong, head of a private task force on the factory park, said the planned summit has raised expectations that the shuttered enclave could be reopened.
South Korea hopes that the summit could also set the stage for dialogue between North Korea and the U.S. over Pyongyang's nuclear program.
Lee Seong-hyon, a research fellow at the Sejong Institute, said Seoul can link the reopening of the Kaesong complex to progress toward North Korea's denuclearization as Washington is the key when it comes to international sanctions against North Korea.
North Korea has demonstrated its commitment to denuclearization and is willing to talk with the U.S. for denuclearization and diplomatic normalizations, according to South Korean special envoys who met with Kim in Pyongyang earlier this week.
Still, Lee cautioned that persuading the U.S. can be "a challenge since Washington will think it's premature to put Kaesong back on the table at this stage."
Cho and other South Korean businessmen have pressed South Korea to allow them to visit North Korea to inspect their facilities in Kaesong, having filed two appeals since liberal President Moon took office in Seoul last May.
South Korea has set March 15 as a deadline for deciding whether to approve the trip.
Any trip by South Koreans to North Korea requires the South Korean government's approval as well as the North's consent.
"Expectations are high for a trip to Kaesong by the South Korean businessmen, but there's doubt over whether they could be able to go there," said Kim Seo-jin, a senior official of the Corporate Association of Gaesong Industrial Complex.
The association speaks on behalf of all 123 South Korean firms that had operated factories in the factory park. Gaesong and Kaesong refer to the same North Korean western border city; the spelling is different in South and North Korea.
The prolonged shutdown could doom South Koreans' businesses in North Korea.
The South Korean firms claim that the shutdown has caused about 1.5 trillion won (US$1.4 billion) in losses, but the government estimated their losses to be 786 billion won.
Cho invested 12 billion won (US$11.1 million) in his Kaesong plant in 2007 which has since generated about 10 billion won in sales per year.
Now, his company's sales have shrank to about 800 million won per year and he has had to cut his staff to six from about 380, a dramatic downsize that underscores difficulties facing the South Korean businessmen.
The Kaesong Complex showcased a sort of unification, said Cho, as it combined South Korean capital and technology with cheap labor from North Korea to produce chinaware, clothes and other labor-intensive products.
Cho said South Korea "is the only country that made products with the enemy," referring to North Korea.
The sides technically remain in a state of war since the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.
"We don't need to tell North Korea to embrace capitalism," Cho said, citing his years of experience in dealing with North Korean workers. "Capitalism could automatically seep into the North if we set up about 10-20 joint complexes in North Korea."
Lee said the Kaesong complex "can be a Trojan horse for positive change in the reclusive North."
But as things stand, it remains unclear when and if the two Koreas' joint economic venture in Kaesong will be up and running again.
"I have no choice but to switch to a new business unless the Kaesong Complex is reopened," the businessman said.
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