PAJU, South Korea — South Koreans crossed the Demilitarized Zone on Monday morning to return to work at the Kaesong Industrial Complex inside North Korea for the first time since the facility was shuttered five months ago amid high tensions on the peninsula.
Relations between the two Koreas have warmed considerably in recent weeks, and the reopening of Kaesong is the most high-profile symbol of that improvement.
A South Korean Ministry of Unification official said it was too soon to say when the 123 factories and production facilities at the complex will be fully operational, with 1,000 South Koreans serving primarily as supervisors for more than 53,000 North Koreans providing cheap labor to produce electronics, automobile parts, clothing, textiles and other items. More than 800 South Koreans were expected to cross the border Monday.
“The next couple of days will be a test run of the complex,” the ministry official said. “No one knows how long it will be … until it is completely reactivated.”
Unification Ministry officials declined to speculate on why North Korea agreed to reopen Kaesong, but workers provided by the impoverished communist country missed out on close to $1 billion in pay for the five months the facility was closed, according to one government estimate. Estimates on how much the Kaesong businesses lost range from $750 million to $1 billion, according to a Unification Ministry official.
Ohm Tae-am, a researcher with the Global Strategy Division of the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, said North Korea could not afford to let Kaesong sit empty much longer.
“North Korea is likely quite desperate now,” he said.
In addition, the North’s biggest ally, China, has been uncharacteristically outspoken in recent months about the hardline stance Pyongyang was taking with Seoul on a number of fronts, including the future of Kaesong.
“That must have come as a devastating shock to the North,” Ohm said.
The complex was closed in April after the North barred South Koreans from crossing the border to work there.
The move was in response to U.N. sanctions following a North Korean satellite launch and its third nuclear test — coupled with uncharacteristically conspicuous shows of force by the U.S. military during exercises in South Korea — that led to a steady escalation of tit-for-tat actions.
U.S. military leaders and politicians called it the most dangerous and volatile standoffs in years, with the North threatening to launch nuclear weapons against South Korea and U.S. territory.
Reaction to the reopening of the complex was mixed among the workers waiting Monday to cross the border and return to work in Kaesong.
Chang Dong-gi, 43, a truck driver for one of the complex’s businesses, said he was “half-worried and half-pleased” as he prepared to cross the border.
While he doubts the North would close the complex again, he was concerned he and his fellow employees might find the business in shambles since no one has been taking care of the place for months.
Another Kaesong worker, who declined to give his name, said he had so many conflicting emotions Monday that he was numb. However, he said the North had likely learned a lesson from the experience.
“North Korea will not do that again because if (the complex ever closes again) it will do great harm to the North’s self-respect,” he said.
Another Kaesong employee, who also declined to give her name, was succinct in her feelings about the day.
“I’m pleased,” she said with a smile, before scurrying away.