WASHINGTON - As South Korea’s new leadership works toward easing long strained inter-Korean relations, U.S. experts are eyeing the country’s conciliatory overtures to the Kim Jong Un regime, worried that a possible resumption of the Kaesong Industrial Complex could provoke discord with the Trump administration.
Shortly after South Korean President Moon Jae-in named Cho Myoung-gyun to be his North Korea point man on June 13, Cho, who played a key role in launching the now-stalled economic cooperation project, told reporters, “Operations at the Kaesong Industrial Complex should be restored. I will speak after thoroughly looking into the details.”
That statement caused a flurry of criticism in Washington, with many analysts saying reviving activities at the complex possibly could hurt Washington-Seoul relations and diminish their alliance coordination. Seoul closed the complex in February 2016 as punishment for the regime’s nuclear test and long-range rocket launch.
“Reopening the Kaesong Industrial Complex is very problematic from Washington's perspective,” Sue Mi Terry, a former CIA analyst who specializes in North Korea, told VOA’s Korean Service.
Launched in 2004 to enhance cooperation between the two Koreas, the jointly run industrial complex in Kaesong, just north of the border, has reportedly provided $100 million a year in wages to 54,000 North Korean workers and contributed almost $2 billion in trade for Pyongyang.
Terry said any conciliatory action that translates into significant financial benefits for Pyongyang contradicts Washington’s North Korea policy, which is focused on thwarting the Kim regime’s nuclear weapons program by severing all possible revenue streams that fund it.
“We don't know where the money is going,” Terry said. “It could be contributing to North Korea's WMD (weapons of mass destruction) missile program. There is no evidence that it's not.”
Thomas Countryman, who served in the Obama administration as assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, said restarting Kaesong's activities would not only reward Kim for the continued provocations, but also throw cold water on international efforts.
“It would be inconsistent with the [U.N. Security Council] resolutions if not in the letter, then in the spirit,” Countryman said. “There is simply no way that [South Korea] could convince China to have a strict enforcement of the U.N. resolutions, if South Korea is reopening a complex that provides tens of millions of dollars of hard currency every year to the North Korean regime.”
Formerly the Obama White House coordinator for arms control and WMD, Gary Samore of the Belfer Center at Harvard University said Seoul should be more strategic and use Kaesong as a bargaining chip in response to or as part of a deal with Pyongyang to take steps toward limiting and eventually eliminating its nuclear activities.
“It would be a big mistake to resume the Kaesong Industrial Park without getting something in return,” Samore said. “So if Kim Jong Un agrees to some limits on nuclear and missile activity -- for example, a freeze on testing -- then I think one response that [South Korea] could make would be to resume the Kaesong Industrial Park, with the understanding that the facility would be suspended if Kim Jong Un resumed nuclear and missile testing.”
Negotiations on Pyongyang’s nuclear program have been in limbo for almost a decade, with Washington and Seoul ratcheting up economic pressure and a stubborn Pyongyang persisting with weapons development. But since Moon took office last month, he appears to be easing conditions for talks with the North.
“I make it clear that we will open dialogue without a precondition” should North Korea stop launching missiles and testing nuclear devices, Moon said Thursday at an event marking the 2000 inter-Korean summit.
But when President Donald Trump’s top diplomat Rex Tillerson led a U.N. Security Council special meeting in April, he rejected negotiations with Kim, saying North Korea “must take concrete steps to reduce the threat that its illegal weapons programs pose to the U.S. and our allies before we can even consider talks.” Those steps would be dismantling its nuclear and missile programs.
Moon Chung-in, South Korea’s special presidential advisor for foreign and security affairs, commented at an event in Washington Friday that his president proposed “scaling down” the Washington-Seoul joint military drills if North Korea “suspends its nuclear and missile activities.”
The State Department downplayed the significance of the comments.
“We understand these views are the personal views of Mr. Moon and may not reflect official ROK govern policy,” said Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs spokesperson Alicia Edwards in an email to VOA.
A senior official at the South Korean presidential office said the advisor did not coordinate with the president’s office on the proposal.
This report originated on VOA Korean.