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S. Korea's Controversial Engagement with North, a Tale of Two Zones

South Korean leaders have celebrated two massive projects they built in communist North Korea as symbols of peaceful inter-Korean cooperation. The Kaesong Industrial Complex and the Kumgang Tourist Zone - both at the heart of Seoul's engagement policy with Pyongyang - have until recently been largely immune to political criticism. But that all changed in October with North Korea's first-ever nuclear test. VOA's Kurt Achin visited Kaesong earlier this year and has just returned from Mount Kumgang. He takes a closer look at the controversy.

The Kaesong Industrial Complex and the Kumgang Tourism Zone were built and are run by South Korea's Hyundai Asan Corporation following a historic 2000 summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and then-South Korean President Kim Dae-jung.

That meeting - the first and only between leaders of the two Koreas - unleashed a flood of goodwill among South Koreans toward the communist North, and buttressed support for the so-called "Sunshine Policy."

That strategy maintains Pyongyang can be gently wooed into opening up to the world and eventually reunification - with financial help. As a result, the two cooperation zones have received tens of millions of South Korean tax dollars.

The Kaesong complex, just 70 kilometers north of Seoul, employs about 6,000 North Korean workers, making low-skilled consumer items for South Korean companies. When international journalists visited in February, they were shown a promotional video hailing the zone as a political watershed.

"The Kaesong Industrial Complex, where conflicts are thawing, where reconciliations are being made, and new hopes are being manufactured," the video explains.

A similar spirit of feel-good reconciliation prevails here at Mount Kumgang, a hiking and leisure enclave built near North Korea's southeastern coastal border.

North Korean performers at Kumgang regale visitors with songs of emotional longing to see lost friends and family. Hedges are trimmed into the shape of a unified Korean peninsula.

Crystal clear streams flow at Kumgang - and so does the hard currency.

Together, the Kumgang and Kaesong zones have put nearly $1 billion in Pyongyang's treasury since 1998. The administrations of Kim Dae-jung and current South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun justified the money as an investment in keeping the North nuclear weapons-free.

Then came October 9.

North Korea announced its first-ever nuclear weapons test - and simultaneously set off a debate about whether all that money had really been well spent.

Senior U.S. officials are taking specific aim at the Kumgang project. In what he described as a "personal opinion", U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill implied the Kaesong zone had some merit but Kumgang was just a money machine for Pyongyang.

"I think one is designed maybe to make a long-term investment in human capital, and the other seems to be designed more to give money to the North Korean authorities," he said.

In South Korea, the nuclear test and the resulting U.N. economic sanctions imposed on North Korea are causing many here to question whether their country can sustain involvement in the cooperation zones.

Opposition lawmaker Jung Byung-guk says both projects, but especially Kumgang, must be re-examined.

He says the nuclear test has made it clear that the Kumgang project is a failure.

President Roh has said the engagement policy would have to be "adjusted" - but members of his Uri Party still defend the Kumgang and Kaesong zones.

Uri lawmaker Lee Guang-chul says interaction at Kumgang has eased tensions between the North and South, and should continue.

Interaction does happen within the two zones, but is limited. At both Kaesong and Kumgang, the clean and modern South Korean-built enclaves are fenced off from North Korean villages and guarded by soldiers. Entering or photographing the villages is strictly forbidden. South Korean employees receive special training to avoid political chat with their Northern counterparts.

Paik Ji-hyun, an international relations scholar at Seoul National University, says the isolated zones should not even be thought of as North Korea - and adds, Pyongyang is unlikely to allow more of them.

"If you know the reality of North Korea, I don't think North Korea will ever allow another Kaesong or Kumgangsan," he said.

Another very symbolic set of interactions here at Kumgang has given this location strong emotional significance for many Koreans. This has been the site of a series of tearful reunions between families separated by the 1950s Korean War.

But in the distance, a skeleton of girders shows where the construction of a permanent reunion center has been frozen by frequent disappointments in inter-Korean relations since the 2000 summit.

Under pressure after the North's nuclear test, South Korea is expected to cut off taxpayer-funded subsidies to Mount Kumgang in the near future. However, it has made no further moves to impede either zone's operations for now. It remains to be seen how private factors will influence the zones: whether tourists will still want to book travel to Kumgang, and whether investors will have the stomach to set up shop in Kaesong, in nuclear-armed North Korea.