Asia Pacific

With latest tensions, Seoul puts North at arm's length

by Chico Harlan

The Washington Post

Despite years of tensions, a majority of South Koreans have long clung to a cautiously optimistic vision for their peninsula’s future. Even if North and South Korea weren’t one day unified, the thinking went, the countries would at least be connected by joint business ventures and rail lines, with some there even traveling on weekends to resorts in the North’s mountainsides.

But for many South Koreans, the recent weeks of fury from Pyongyang, and in particular the barricade of a joint industrial park near the border, has driven home a different conclusion: The South is better off keeping its distance from the North than cooperating with it or even trying to.

Some analysts say the tension of recent weeks, at a level not seen in two decades, has levied a clear and long-lasting toll on relations between the two Koreas, even if both sides manage to avoid armed conflict and ratchet down hostility.

The North’s decision to bar South Korean workers from the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a symbol of cooperation, has all but dashed South Korean business sentiment to invest further in the authoritarian state, executives and analysts say. Such resistance makes it far harder for new South Korean President Park Geun Hye to spur economic cooperation with the North, even if she wants to.

Park took office in February having laid out a “trust-building” strategy with the North in which the South would provide humanitarian aid and small-scale economic projects to rebuild frayed ties, then add bigger investments if the North behaved in good faith. Park’s plan could still work, but analysts say that is unlikely; the North, they say, wants acceptance as a nuclear state and the removal of international sanctions before it agrees to major engagement.

“Those are like poison pills,” said Daniel Pinkston, a Seoul-based North Korea expert at the International Crisis Group. “The (trust-building) offer still applies — Park is not withdrawing it. If North Korea is willing to engage, she’ll reciprocate. But everything depends on the North’s stance.”

Hopes for inter-Korean relations have been progressively downsized in recent years. Back-to-back liberal presidents from 1998 to 2008 offered the grandest vision, known as the Sunshine Policy. They hoped business deals and back-and-forth travel would push broader capitalist reforms in the North — something that never took root.

The following president, Lee Myung Bak, quickly yanked away much of the aid and investment, but even his strategy had a glimmer of optimism: He promised full cooperation with the North if it denuclearized, a move he thought possible. Park, by contrast, dwells far less on weapons, which the North says are its “nation’s life” and not up for negotiation.

But for all the North’s decisions in recent weeks, including its renewed effort to produce fissile material at the Yongbyon nuclear site, nothing has damaged inter-Korean relations more than the barricade of the Kaesong complex.

Located 10 km north of the border, Kaesong was launched in 2004 as a place where the two Koreas could work side by side, with management, technology and supplies coming from the South and labor coming from the North. Its operator, Hyundai Asan, a subsidiary of the South Korean conglomerate, once called the facility a “new dream of coprosperity,” and its promotional pamphlets show a master plan with three golf courses, a theme park and restaurants.

Today, Kaesong is a grid of gray factories. Ninety percent of the master plan is undeveloped, and investment was frozen when North Korea launched a pair of attacks on the South in 2010. Business executives there say they are at the whims of North Korea’s 30-year-old ruler, Kim Jong Un, who on Wednesday barred South Koreans from entering the plant, perhaps as a political show of force.

The barricade has potentially fatal implications for the companies at the plant, who are prevented from distributing products to customers.

“Even if North Korea reopens Kaesong, they’ve already lost credibility,” said Song, a professor at Kyungmin University in northern Seoul. “People would be concerned about investing in North Korea again, because they’ve seen the risk.”

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