Year after year, and almost alone, I have argued that the Kaesong Industrial Park was incompatible with U.N. Security Council resolutions sanctioning Pyongyang. At Kaesong, “South Korea has 124 companies … employing 54,700 North Korean workers … whose wages are paid to a North Korean state agency.” All told, those fees, taxes, and “wages,” which the North Korean workers probably never saw after Kim Jong-un took his cut, totaled $110 million last year alone.
Contrary to Kaesong’s founding purpose of promoting North-South engagement and people-to-people contact, the workers were heavily supervised and prohibited from direct action with their South Korean bosses, who had to relay their directives through North Korean state minders. And because Seoul never really knew how Kim Jong-un used the money, I argued that Kaesong was a violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions that required it to know, and to “ensure” that they money was not used for prohibited weapons programs.
Here, for example, is a quote from the first Chapter VII resolution against Pyongyang, UNSCR 1718:
And here is UNSCR 2094, which South Korea itself voted for as a non-permanent member of the Security Council at the time:
Mind you, I said I was almost alone in arguing this, because as then-Treasury Undersecretary David Cohen said in 2013, “Precisely what North Koreans do with earnings from Kaesong, I think, is something that we are concerned about.” I’ve publicly challenged the Unifiction Ministry to say whether it knew how Pyongyang was spending the funds it earned from Kaesong (it never responded).
But with Seoul’s decision today to “temporarily” halt operations in Kaesong comes this stunning admission from the Unifiction Minister himself:
The suspension of activity there comes amid calls from the United States and South Korea for tougher U.N. and other sanctions against the isolated North following the rocket launch and its fourth nuclear test on Jan. 6.
South Korean Unification Minister Hong Yong-pyo told media North Korea was suspected of spending funds from Kaesong on advancing its nuclear weapons and long-range missiles programs, and the suspension of operations was to stop funds being used for that.
“We are not going to be able to crack North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs by sticking to the same kind of response we have taken all along,” Hong told a briefing. [Reuters]
Cue the usual bitching from Kaesong investors who profit from what amounts to slave labor by its workers, and from leftists who say that closing Kaesong (as opposed to Pyongyang’s conduct) will raise tensions. But here in Washington, opinion had shifted decisively against Kaesong, and calls for its closure had become deafening.
Don’t take this the wrong way. I welcome Seoul’s decision and its refreshingly truthful admission. By closing Kaesong, Seoul can now call on other nations to enforce sanctions without having those nations laugh in Seoul’s face. But really, how long did Seoul “suspect” that Pyongyang was using its Kaesong earnings this way? Based on Cohen’s statement, since at least 2013. Seoul’s admission today will make it almost legally impossible for Seoul to reopen Kaesong again under similar arrangements, now that it has admitted, in effect, that those arrangements were in violation of the Security Council’s resolutions. But if Pyongyang ever becomes serious about engagement, change, and reform, perhaps both sides can agree to reopen Kaesong on the condition that all of those wages and taxes are paid in kind, as food aid, distributed to North Korea’s hungry, by the World Food Program.
Dream on. And, God willing, good riddance to the Sunshine Policy, which died today.