A South Korean soldier stands at a military check point connecting South and North Korea at the Unification Bridge on April 9, 2013 in Paju, South Korea. (image by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty)
Zach Coleman, USA TODAY
North and South Korea agreed to reopen a pioneering joint industrial park next week after overnight talks that lasted through early Wednesday morning.
The Kaesong industrial park, which opened during a period of warming ties in 2004, closed in April when North Korea withdrew its factory workers amid high tensions over Pyongyang's missile and nuclear tests, censures by the United Nations and threats of war by young North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
In a recurrent pattern of blowing hot and cold, Pyongyang has struck a conciliatory tone in recent weeks, agreeing with the South to hold the first reunions of families divided by the 1950-53 Korean War in three years later this month, and welcoming back American basketball star Dennis Rodman last week.
Rodman said in New York on Tuesday that he will head back to Pyongyang in January with a dozen other former NBA players for a tournament for Kim's birthday and that he will train the North's next Olympic basketball squad. The two Koreas are also discussing resuming tours from the South to the scenic Mt. Kumgang area slightly north of the border. The South suspended the trips after a tourist was shot by soldiers and Pyongyang responded by seizing the assets of the South Korean company that operated the tours.
The Kaesong park, also just north of the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas, is home to about 120 factories owned by South Korean companies which use around 50,000 low-wage North Korean workers to produce clothing, watches and other goods. The South Korean companies do not directly employ the workers but rather pay millions of dollars for their labor to North Korea.
North and South agreed in talks last month to seek preferential trade treatment for products from Kaesong. This has long been a sticking point between Seoul and Washington; last year's U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement held out the possibility the North Korea-made products might later be included.
The two Koreas have also agreed to seek to attract non-Korean companies to set up operations in Kaesong, according to South Korea's Ministry of Unification.
The park is likely to remain a difficult sell for companies without the backing from their government that South Korean firms get, but it could be made more attractive by pledges by North Korea to guarantee the park's normal operations and to discuss better cell phone and internet connections for the park and easier customs clearance.
The two sides are also discussing compensation for the South Korean tenants affected by the park's closure though they said Wednesday that the companies will receive a tax exemption for 2013. The North has also agreed to South Korean demands for guarantees of the safety of its companies' 800 staff in the park and the companies' assets.