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Industrial Park Is A Pawn In Korea Relations


North and South Korea have technically been in a state of war for more than 60 years. But here and there, there are unlikely pockets of cooperation. One of them is the Kaesong industrial complex just over the border in North Korea. It's a joint manufacturing business park with North Koreans working in South Korean-owned factories. This week, after the North launched a missile, South Korea abruptly shut it down. Anna Fifield covers the Koreas for The Washington Post. Good morning, Anna.

ANNA FIFIELD: Good morning, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Paint us a quick picture of how Kaesong came to be.

FIFIELD: Well, this was set up. It opened its doors in 2004 during a period that was known as the years of the sunshine policy in South Korea, where South Korea had this idea that if it, you know, started more economic engagement projects with North Korea that it would help lessen the information and the economic gaps between South Korea and North Korea. So it was open with a lot fanfare there in supposedly paving the way for future cooperation. And I actually visited three times in the first years that it was open, like 2005, 2006, and it was this quite impressive factory complex where you could see North Korean workers making clothes and shoes and cooking utensils for South Korean companies.

KELLY: And it's big. There's more than 50,000 North Koreans who were employed there until this week.

FIFIELD: That's right. When it closed down, there were 54,000 North Koreans working side by side with South Korean managers every single day. Now their communication was somewhat limited, but still, you had even more North Koreans than ever before exposed to the outside world even a little bit. But at the same time, it's always been very controversial because the money that the South Korean companies pay for this labor had been going directly to the regime, not to the workers themselves.

KELLY: Now South Korea has alleged that the North has been using that money to support its nuclear weapons program. That's why they've shut it down in punishment. Is there evidence that that is true?

FIFIELD: There is no evidence that that is true. It has always been suspected that that is what North Korea is doing because, I mean, it doesn't have that many sources of foreign revenue, so this is, you know, a significant one for them. The financial system inside North Korea is so opaque we can never know exactly what they're doing with their money. But we do know that this has been generating money for the regime.

KELLY: There was one previous shutdown in 2013. That one lasted about five months. How do you foresee this situation resolving?

FIFIELD: Well, the big difference here is that that shutdown was North Korea's idea. At that time, when the U.S. and the South Korean militaries were conducting their annual military drills, North Korea protested and pulled all of its workers out of the plant for about five months. And notably, Park Geun-hye, who had just come in as South Korea's president at that time, tried really hard to get that complex reopened, and she was eventually successful later in that year. So the South Koreans, through thick and thin, had never actually shut down this complex. So it looks like the South Korean government has really had an epiphany over the last week and decided that it's time to really get tough on North Korea and start inflicting whatever pain they can.

KELLY: OK, Anna, thanks so much.

FIFIELD: Sure, thanks for asking me on.

KELLY: Anna Fifield is Tokyo bureau chief for The Washington Post. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.