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September 13, 2013 at 6:50 AM
Kaesong and the fate of Kenneth Bae
Does some good news about the reopening of a North Korean industrial park portend very good news for an American detained since November 2012?
Call it structural optimism, but I think in the world of diplomacy the bits and pieces of events, relationships and outcomes can add up to change. The sum of the parts is vital.
Bae, a former Lynnwood resident, was detained by North Korea when a tour group he was leading somehow offended the sensibilities of local authorities.
Bae’s health has deteriorated in custody. Formal and informal efforts on his behalf have not yielded his freedom. One of his presumed advocates has been former NBA star Dennis Rodman, who has a big fan in North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. After Rodman’s latest visit he was all grumpy with the media that hounded him about what he might have said on Bae’s behalf. I found Rodman’s reticence to talk about his private chats encouraging. He had received good counsel to keep his mouth shut.
Now the regime in Pyongyang and the government in South Korea have announced the Kaesong Industrial Complex will reopen on Sept. 16th. The zone, just across the demilitarized border in North Korea, is home to more than 120 South Korean factories, and employs more than 50,000 North Korean workers, who were pulled off the job last April.
A North Korean nuclear test in February had soured relations on the peninsula. The tension was cinched up by South Korean and U.S. military exercises. The closure of Kaesong is hard on both economies, but North Korea has virtually no other source of income.
The deal that reopened Kaesong provides for the industrial zone to continue working despite future political tensions. And the first reunion of families separated by the 60-year-old Korean War border in three years.
Does this all create a feel-good moment that benefits the release of Kenneth Bae? I hope so and I believe so. All sides use the leverage available to them, and look for opportunities to generate pragmatic goodwill. Reopening Kaesong might well translate into good news for Bae and his loved ones.