[Interview] Kaesong Complex could produce 6 million masks a day

Posted on : 2020-03-15 14:42 KST Modified on : 2020-03-15 14:42 KST
Director of the Kaesong Industrial District Foundation discusses how COVID-19 serves as an opportunity to repair inter-Korean relations
Kim Jin-hyang, director of the Gaeseong (Kaesong) Industrial District Foundation, during his interview with the Hankyoreh on Mar. 10. (Park Kyung-man, North Gyeonggi correspondent)
Kim Jin-hyang, director of the Gaeseong (Kaesong) Industrial District Foundation, during his interview with the Hankyoreh on Mar. 10. (Park Kyung-man, North Gyeonggi correspondent)

As the outbreak of the novel coronavirus expands into a worldwide pandemic, some are arguing that the Kaesong Industrial Complex, which was closed four years ago, should be reopened to produce masks and other materials for fighting the outbreak that are currently in short supply. A petition to manufacture masks and other medical supplies at the Kaesong Complex was posted to the Blue House message board on Mar. 6; as of Mar. 11, it had received more than 10,000 signatures.

“If the government were only willing, we could run factories capable of producing more than 6 million masks a month,” contended Kim Jin-hyang, 51, chairman of the Gaeseong (Kaesong) Industrial District Foundation. The Hankyoreh sat down with Kim at the foundation’s office, in Seoul’s Mapo District, on the morning of Mar. 10.

There’s one mask factory and 73 sewing companies that could be immediately operated at the Kaesong Complex. Even if only some of them were reopened, it would be possible to produce enough virus prevention supplies to cover global demand,” Kim said.

Until the Kaesong Complex was closed in February 2016, Kim explains, 55,000 workers from North Korea and 1,000 from South Korea were employed each day on production lines for a total of 125 companies. The mask factory there, if put on round-the-clock operations, is capable of producing 200,000 masks a day, or 6 million a month. If the 73 apparel companies were put to work sewing masks and sanitary and protective gear, they would be more than able to cover global demand.

Is it really feasible for those factories to be quickly brought back online, though? “Since the Inter-Korean Liaison Office has been managing the complex, there wouldn’t be any trouble running basic complex infrastructure such as power lines, telephone lines, the industrial water supply, and the wastewater treatment plant,” Kim replied.

“While the equipment at each company would have to be assessed, prepping the sewing machines at the apparel companies isn’t expected to take very long. We believe that 70% to 80% of North Korea’s skilled workers could be immediately put to work. If the government divided up the tasks and worked on them simultaneously, the apparel companies at the Kaesong Complex would be able to resume operations within a month at the latest.”

With COVID-19 becoming a global pandemic, US could be persuaded to exempt the Kaesong Complex from UN sanctions

Kim also addressed the biggest obstacle to reopening the Kaesong Complex — namely, the sanctions imposed by the US and the UN Security Council. “Reopening the complex depends not so much on the US or the UN Security Council as on the willingness of the South and North Korean authorities. Considering that the COVID-19 (novel coronavirus disease) pandemic is causing a shortage of medical supplies, such as masks and protective suits, in the US and countries around the world, the South Korean government, given enough determination and drive, could persuade major players in the international community — including the US, the UN Security Council, and the World Health Organization (WHO) — to grant an exception to the sanctions.”

Kim feels confident about North Korea’s likely response. “Resuming tourism to Mt. Kumgang is basically out of the question now that North Korea has said it will develop tourism on its own there, so all that’s left now is the Kaesong Complex. If South Korea pushes hard enough, I think the North will respond in kind.”

Kim offered some evidence to back up that view: “In their Pyongyang Declaration on Sept. 19, 2018, the leaders of South and North Korea agreed to normalize the Kaesong Complex, and the North Korean [leader] proposed reopening the complex without any preconditions in his 2019 New Year’s address. Since North Korea has always maintained that inter-Korean relations are an issue for Koreans to address, it will listen to a South Korean proposal, and join working-level negotiations, even though It pretends to consent reluctantly.”

What about claims that North Korea is facing a massive COVID-19 outbreak? “That’s just idle speculation. The North has completely closed its borders and is taking aggressive quarantine measures. On top of that, its economic system is completely self-contained rather than being interlinked, which means there’s hardly any international movement. Even if there was a partial outbreak, therefore, it wouldn’t spread around the entire country,” Kim said.

S. Korea benefited more from complex than N. Korea did

When asked about why Kaesong Complex needs to be reopened, Kim brought up an “experiential certainty” he’d come to feel during 14 years at the complex. “When the complex was operating properly, it was a miraculous place that created added value in terms of peace and the economy, a place where peace and unification were realized every day.” Kim has little patience for critics who say that Kaesong was shunting South Korean money to the North Korean regime, arguing that South Korea got even more out of Kaesong than North Korea did.

Kim served at the complex for about four years after being appointed head of the corporate resources department at the Kaesong Industrial District Management Committee in February 2008. More recently, he served as the committee’s director (until it was shut down after Moon Jae-in became president) and as chairman of the Gaeseong Industrial District Foundation.

Closing complex merely left vacuum for Chinese companies to fill

“[Former South Korean president] Park Geun-hye’s closure of the Kaesong Complex was a preemptive measure that paved the way for the international community to put sanctions on North Korea. It was a clear policy failure since those sanctions ended up harming not North Korea but South Korean companies. The role that was once played by the Kaesong Complex has been taken over by Chinese companies,” Kim said.

“This idea might sound like it’s out of nowhere, but it’s not crackpot or delusional. Rather than sitting around a table and theorizing about what’s practical, government officials need to treat this crisis as an opportunity and take action to beat the COVID-19 epidemic and restore inter-Korean relations. Failing to rectify the Park administration’s failed policy will only prolong that failure.

On the fourth anniversary of the Kaesong Complex’s closure on Feb. 11, Kim organized a rally to call for the complex’s reopening, during which he officially proposed working-level deliberations between the Gaeseong Industrial District Foundation and the North Korean Central General Bureau for Guiding the Development of Special Zones. The two organizations are responsible for managing and operating the Kaesong Complex under related legislation in South and North Korea.

By Park Kyung-man, North Gyeonggi correspondent

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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