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Dagyum Ji is a senior NK News correspondent based in Seoul. She previously worked for Reuters TV.
South Korea’s unification minister has called for North Korea to permit a group of South Korean businessmen to visit the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC), amid an ongoing controversy over the alleged expropriation of property at the plant.
“The government requests that North Korea take relevant measures including the insurance of personal safety and passage, which are required for [South Korea] to approve our businessmen’s trip to the North,” Minister of Unification Cho Myoung-gyon said.
Cho made the comments – which were embargoed until 1500 KST on Thursday – at a ministry workshop held on Tuesday in Samcheok city, Gangwon Province.
Following reports in DPRK media suggesting that facilities at the KIC were being used by the North Koreans, a group of around 40 South Korean businessmen asked the unification ministry on October 12 to permit a visit to the complex.
DPRK state media outlets Uriminzokkiri and Arirang-Meari earlier in the month claimed that factories in the KIC will be “more vigorously operated” in the future – a response to a Radio Free Asia (RFA) report claiming that Pyongyang was running secret sweatshops at the plant.
“It’s not right if the North Korean side damages the properties of the companies, given that they invested trusting the law on the Gaesong Industrial Complex Area and investment guarantee agreement,” Cho said. “I once again clearly point out that that’s an illegal infringement.”
The minister said that the visit was unrelated to a potential future reopening of the KIC.
“Pushing ahead with the businessmen’s visit to North Korea is a measure to check the condition of the assets, and it is irrelevant to the resumption of the Gaesong Industrial Complex,” Cho said.
“The issue of the resumption of the Gaesong Industrial Complex is the one that should be dealt with step by step after the North’s nuclear issue enters a stage of resolution.”
The unification ministry last Friday postponed an announcement on whether or not it would permit the visit.
The decision came the same day as a Uriminzokkiri report claiming Seoul had “no right” to send anyone to the KIC.
“It the ultimate in shamelessness and unreasonable of them to talk about ‘the issue of visiting North Korea’,” the report said.
Uriminzokkiri released a report on the visit again on Tuesday calling on the Moon administration to “compensate the damage caused by the shutdown.”
South Korea had “behaved in a capricious way,” the report said, criticizing an MOU statement in mid-October claiming that Seoul would “find ways to visit North Korea.”
“[The aim] is to avoid the public criticism on the closure of the Kaesong Industrial District,” it added.
An MOU official, when contacted by NK News on Thursday, would not comment on the Uriminzokkiri report.
Meanwhile, Cho also said that Seoul believes that the period between late October and next spring will be a “crucial time” to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue, pointing to the upcoming Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Vietnam.
The South Korean unification minister also said that negotiation was yet to lead to any progress towards North Korean denuclearization.
“It’s not easy to enter into the phase of negotiation on the North Korean nuclear issue considering the situation,” Cho said, citing recent comments by North Korean diplomat Choe Son Hui at the 2017 Non-Proliferation Conference in Moscow.
“It is not easy to enter negotiation and the process of proceeding with talks once they begin is also not easy,” he added, arguing that distrust between Washington and Pyongyang was deep and that there is a “huge difference” in the two country’s positions.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured Image: South Korean Ministry of Unification (MOU)