When I stared at the cornmeal colored dirt around the Kaesong Industrial Complex in 2006 from an observation point at Panmunjom, the North Korean site was all about the future.
Six miles beyond the Demilitarized Zone, Kaesong had been open for three years. The talk was the site would be fully developed by 2012 and provide jobs for 16,000 North Koreans. When Pyongyang shut down South Korean access to the industrial park on Wednesday, the complex employed 53,000 workers.
North Korea’s bellicose rants about military plans, and nuclear aggression are one thing, but for the dirt-poor nation to close an enterprise that returns $90 million in wages is truly alarming. What indeed is this wacky regime up to? Turns out those in Pyongyang apparently crave respect as much as a steady paycheck. Suggesting the North Koreans would never tamper with their source of hard currency is an insulting provocation in itself.
Kaesong grew into the home of 123 companies with North Korean workers using South Korean technology and market access. The intent was to create a pragmatic bond between the two countries. Closing down Kaesong is not without precedent. It happened in 2009 when Pyongyang was miffed by joint U.S.-South Korean military operations. The complex has stayed open during even more tense times.
News accounts of the latest tensions noted the last remaining hotline between the North and the South was cut. During my visit to Panmunjom, a U.S. Army captain, a West Point grad from Wapato near Yakima, explained her job was to maintain a 24-hotline with the Korean People’s Army. The hotline, as such, was a combination of a 1960s field phone, an aged fax machine, and a bull horn, if all else failed.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has maintained the appropriate diplomatic mode: keep talking. Predicting the whims of North Korea and its young leader Kim Jong Un requires imagination.
Here is an Associated Press interactive graphic on North Korea. Click on to page 2 in order to see a map of Kaesong.
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