Koreas restart operations at Kaesong industrial zone

Watch: Lucy Williamson reports from the border between the two Koreas

South Korean workers have returned to the Kaesong industrial park in North Korea, five months after work was halted amid high political tension.

Trucks and cars began crossing the border into North Korea at exactly 08:00 (23:00 GMT Sunday).

More than 800 South Koreans were due to cross to the jointly-run centre for what is being called a trial restart.

The zone, just inside North Korea, is home to 123 South Korean factories that employ more than 50,000 North Koreans.

It is the last functioning inter-Korean joint project and a key source of revenue for Pyongyang.

Analysis

The last time trucks queued up at the Kaesong crossing point, five months ago, the border with North Korea remained resolutely closed. This time, shortly after 08:00, the long line of vehicles began moving through, on their way to the newly-reopened industrial complex.

More than 800 South Koreans were due to cross over into Kaesong on Monday, to restart operations at around half the factories there.

The resurrection of the complex is the result of weeks of tough negotiations between the two sides, and those discussions are still not finalised. Among those heading across the border today were a team of negotiators, tasked with hammering out the details for how the complex would look in future.

High on their agenda is the subject of internet and mobile phone access for the site - contentious issues for the North, but key if foreign investors are to be wooed to the complex as a stabilising influence.

After a five-month suspension of the complex, attracting foreign companies has perhaps become a little harder. And even South Korea remains wary, calling Monday's operation a "trial run", not a formal and permanent re-opening of Kaesong.

But Kaesong remains, to many here, the "canary in the mine" of inter-Korean relations, and the agreement to resume operations there paved the way for further signs of a thaw between the two Koreas: the restoration of a military hotline, and a planned reunion of families separated by the Korean War.

Its commercial image may be tarnished, but Kaesong's importance as a political symbol here remains.

But the North withdrew all of its workers in April, as ties between the two Koreas deteriorated in the wake of Pyongyang's 12 February nuclear test.

Reopening the complex has taken months of negotiation.

Joint management

South Korea's Unification Ministry said a total of 820 managers and workers planned to cross into the complex on Monday, with 400 to stay there overnight.

They will be inspecting production facilities to assess how quickly a full restart can be implemented after five months of inactivity.

The restart is being described as a trial but more than half of the South Korean companies had asked North Korean employees to report for work, the ministry said.

Negotiations on resuming operations at the complex faltered for weeks on South Korea's insistence that safeguards must be in place to prevent any future unilateral shut-down of the site by North Korea.

But the two sides have now set up a joint management committee to run operations at Kaesong, which last week set a restart date for the complex.

The committee has also reached agreement on smoother access to the site for South Koreans by expanding permitted border crossing times and is negotiating about improving communications there.

The Koreas have also agreed to open the site to foreign investors - a move seen as making it harder for North Korea to unilaterally close the complex again.

South Korean firms will be exempt from taxes for the rest of the year, to offset losses incurred while the complex was closed.

But some local businessmen remain worried about the risks of doing business with Pyongyang.

Kaesong Industrial Zone

  • Launched in 2003, largely financed by the South to increase co-operation
  • More than 120 factories employ 50,000 North Koreans in manufacturing industries, with goods exported to the South
  • Complex as a whole produced $470m worth of goods in 2012 - the biggest contributor to inter-Korean trade
  • South Korean companies pay more than $80m a year in wages to North Korean workers

"Honestly, I still feel a bit nervous, because you never know whether the North will change its mind in the future," a textile company manager told the French news agency AFP. "Who knows if a crisis like this won't happen again?" he said.

The shutdown was the first for the Kaesong complex since it was opened more than a decade ago.

It came during a period of very high tension on the Korean peninsula.

The 12 February nuclear test led to expanded UN sanctions which, along with an annual US-South Korean joint military drill, angered Pyongyang.

It threatened attacks on multiple targets in the region, prompting warnings - and displays of high-tech military hardware - from the US.

Tensions have eased somewhat in recent weeks, however.

The two Koreas have also recently agreed to hold the first reunion of families separated by the division of the peninsula after the 1950-53 Korean War later this month. It will be the first such reunion in 10 years.

More on This Story

Korea crisis

Related Stories

More Asia stories

RSS

Features

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.