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(News Focus) Seoul seeks to keep peace process alive through biz people's Kaesong trip: experts

All Headlines 18:30 May 17, 2019

By Choi Soo-hyang

SEOUL, May 17 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's decision to allow a group of businesspeople to visit a shuttered joint industrial complex in North Korea reflects both Seoul's hope to break the deadlock in cross-border ties and Washington's wish to keep tensions with Pyongyang under control, experts said Friday.

After eight failed attempts, the businesspeople who used to operate factories in the North's border town of Kaesong received the green light Friday to travel to the complex to check the equipment they left behind when it was abruptly closed in February 2016.

If approved by the North, it will be their first visit to the complex since the shutdown, which was decided by then Park Geun-hye administration in retaliation for the North's nuclear and missiles provocations.

"The decision is a result of a combination of Seoul's will to move inter-Korean relations forward, the companies' hope to visit the park and Washington's attempt to manage the situation involving North Korea," Shin Beom-chul, a senior fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, said.

"The message to the North is clear -- come back to the negotiation table."

Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul (C) answers reporters' questions at the inter-Korean immigration office in Paju, north of Seoul, on May 8, 2019, upon returning home from his brief trip to the North Korean border town of Kaesong to inspect an inter-Korean liaison office there. (Yonhap)

Launched in 2004, the industrial park in Kaesong was born on the back of a peace mood following the first-ever inter-Korean summit. Until the shutdown, it was hailed as a symbol of inter-Korean economic cooperation and a successful cross-border project that combined South Korean capital and technology with cheap labor from North Korea.

Friday's approval came at a time when inter-Korean relations are at a stalemate following the collapse of the Hanoi summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

The unification ministry handling inter-Korean affairs stressed that the decision was made to protect the businesspeople's property rights, but experts say it cannot be seen separate from the current geopolitical situation surrounding the peninsula.

North Korea has been increasingly demonstrating its frustration over the deadlocked situation, launching two short-range missiles last week, five days after firing a barrage of projectiles into the East Sea.

Despite such provocations, Seoul and Washington have opted to stick to diplomacy.

Announcing the approval of the visit, the government also said it will push to provide US$8 million worth of assistance to North Korea through international aid agencies. The plan was originally unveiled in 2017, but has not been carried out amid limited progress in the denuclearization talks.

During his visit to Seoul last week, U.S. special envoy for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, also said the door for North Korea's return to negotiations remains open, according to Seoul's foreign ministry.

"The latest approval is consistent with the government's stance to minimize the political meaning of the missile launch and not to consider it an obstacle in pushing forward inter-Korean talks," Shin, the analyst, said.

In this file photo, taken March 7, 2019, civic groups and businesspeople who operated factories in the Kaesong industrial complex of North Korea hold a joint press conference in downtown Seoul, urging the reopening of the complex as well as the resumption of tours to a North Korean mountain resort. (Yonhap)

Hong Min, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification, said the decision could be seen as part of Seoul's broader efforts to secure more room to play a facilitating role in the U.S.-North Korea negotiations.

"The decision is a sign that Seoul is moving to make room for itself to have more leverage in playing the facilitating role," Hong said.

The businesspeople's expected trip, however, will likely fall short of becoming a catalyst to resume the stalled denuclearization process, experts said.

They also said uncertainties loom over the reopening of the complex, regardless of the business leaders' visit, as its fate largely depends on how the negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang proceed.

While the leaders of the two Koreas agreed in September to resume the operation of the complex, as well as the Mount Kumgang tour program, when conditions are met, Washington has been wary their resumption could undermine the global sanctions regime against Pyongyang.

"The likelihood of a resumption of the Kaesong complex is very low at this point. Until the sanctions are relieved, such a visit will have limited impact," Shin said.

This photo, taken from a South Korean border observatory on Feb. 8, 2019, shows the shuttered Kaesong Industrial Complex, an inter-Korean factory park in the North Korean border city of Kaesong. South Korea suspended operations at the complex on Feb. 11, 2016, citing Pyongyang's fourth nuclear test and rocket launches. (Yonhap)

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