PAJU, South Korea – South Korean officials went to a North Korean border city Wednesday for talks that could determine the fate of a shuttered factory park the rivals jointly ran until North Korea pulled out its workers in April.
The Kaesong industrial complex, which sits just north of the heavily armed border in North Korea's third largest city, was the last remaining symbol of cooperation between the Koreas until Pyongyang halted operations during a torrent of threats that included vows of nuclear strikes on Washington and Seoul.
Ties have improved somewhat between the Koreas in recent weeks, and North Korean media have published recent articles expressing eagerness for better relations. But there's still skepticism the Koreas can settle their differences and put aside the animosity that had both countries trading threats in March and April. Last month saw six failed rounds of talks on Kaesong.
Seoul has been pushing for Pyongyang to provide guarantees that it won't unilaterally shut down Kaesong when tensions rise again.
The industrial park combined South Korean initiative, capital and technology with cheap North Korean labor. It was also a rare source of hard currency for North Korea, though the economically depressed country chafed at suggestions that it needed the money Kaesong generated.
The talks come a day before a holiday in both Koreas that celebrates independence from Japan's 1910-1945 colonial rule. Next week Seoul and Washington plan a massive joint military drill. Pyongyang used a previous routine drill between the allies, along with U.N. sanctions over its February nuclear test, to justify its outburst of threatening rhetoric in March and April.
The park had survived previous periods of tension, including attacks blamed on Pyongyang that killed 50 South Koreans in 2010, and the shutdown of other big cooperation projects
The park broke ground in 2003. By the end of 2012, South Korean companies had produced a total $2 billion worth of goods during the previous eight years.
North Korea is estimated to have received $80 million in workers' salaries in 2012, an average of $127 a month per person, paid in U.S. dollars, according to the Unification Ministry.