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[Editorial] N. Korea as a Hostage Taker

Posted April. 23, 2009 09:17,   


North Korea has demanded that South Korean companies raise wages for North Korean workers in the industrial complex in Kaesong to 70-75 U.S. dollars a month and for the South to pay rent for land four years ahead of time. Pyongyang also unilaterally demanded that Seoul sign a new land lease though they had agreed that South Korean companies use the land for 50 years. It was suggested as a demand for renegotiation but virtually constituted a unilateral notice. While again claiming that Seoul’s participation in the Proliferation Security Initiative constitutes a declaration of war, the North linked the issue with the inter-Korean industrial complex in Kaesong out of the blue. The North also failed to mention the Hyundai Asan employee who has been detained for 25 days.

The Seoul delegation hurriedly headed to Kaesong in early morning in its attempt to use the encounter as official bilateral talks. As the North delayed the meeting for as long as 11 hours, however, the meeting lasted for just 22 minutes, which was truly embarrassing. The Seoul delegation did not even have a chance to see the Hyundai Asan employee who was detained in the building where the meeting was held. Still, the presidential office in Seoul tried to give meaning to the talks, saying, “We can construe the occasion as a momentum for dialogue.” South Korean Unification Minister Hyun In-taek remained low key in making his post-meeting comments, saying, “We will carefully consider the proposal for renegotiation.”

It might be important for Seoul to try to keep the momentum for dialogue going amid the sorry state of inter-Korean relations. What is more important, however, is for Seoul to figure out Pyongyang’s intent accurately and cope with it wisely. Considering the string of measures taken and demands made by Pyongyang following South Korean President Lee Myung-bak`s inauguration, has the North initiated a plot to close the industrial complex after judging it has no more use for its interest? Pyongyang`s demand is being seen as a threat against the South to continue the complex by paying hefty prices or shut it down on its own.

The move could also be Pyongyang’s ploy to hand over the risks to the South, as it will have to take responsibility, make compensation, and face intense criticism if the North unilaterally shuts down the complex.

The Kaesong complex was glorified as a symbol of inter-Korean compromise and a beachhead for inter-Korean economic exchange under the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations. The complex, however, is now a hostage being used by North Korea against the South. Seoul must carefully examine the utility of the complex in light of inter-Korean relations and the economic impact from the very basics. It needs to send to the North a clear signal that it can give up the complex if Pyongyang makes excessive demands.

Attempted wheeling and dealing to demand more money by taking a South Korean staff member hostage is nothing other than kidnapping. Seoul should never give the impression that it is at the North’s disposal. It should make it clear that it cannot hold renegotiations with Pyongyang in any circumstances as long as a South Korean staff is taken hostage. Seoul said its participation in the Proliferation Security Initiative has nothing to do with its relations with Pyongyang, but it has postponed its participation three times due to the North, which is a mistake. The South must now repeat the hopeless behavior of putting itself at the North’s disposal again because of the industrial complex.