‘Let’s use Kaesong plants for mask production’

SEOUL (The Korea Herald/ANN) - Advocate of shuttered inter-Korean factories urges reopening.

As Korea grapples with a shortage of face masks during the prolonged novel coronavirus outbreak, a rather unconventional idea is being floated: using the shuttered Kaesong industrial park for mask production for both Koreas.
The joint inter-Korean factory park in North Korea’s border city of Kaesong, North Hwanghae Province, has the capacity to manufacture protective masks and reusable cotton masks to meet the need of South Korea’s population of 51 million, according to Kim Jin-hyang, chairman of the Kaesong Industrial District Foundation.
“The skilled North Korean workers, infrastructure and facilities are still in place there,” Kim told The Korea Herald on Tuesday. “If the Kaesong complex reopens, masks can be produced quickly. It can solve the mask shortage problems in Korea, and also other places around the world as coronavirus is becoming a global issue.”
According to Kim, among former tenants of the factory complex is mask manufacturer Evergreen, which had a production capacity of around 6 million masks a month. In addition, there were 73 textiles and sewing manufacturers at the complex that could use their now-abandoned facilities to produce cotton masks. There were also companies that could produce hazmat suits, he added.
It’s been four years since Kaesong industrial park -- once a symbol of inter-Korean economic cooperation -- shut down. In 2016, Seoul decided to close the site after 14 years of operation, in retaliation for the North’s nuclear tests and missile launches, saying profits from Kaesong were funding Pyongyang’s nuclear program.
“Not much of the garment industry is left in South Korea,” he said. “Companies have moved overseas, some to Kaesong, 10-20 years ago as they lost competitiveness to operate here.”
North Korea has skilled textile workers, which is hard to find here, he added.
“With the amount of masks Korea is producing at the moment, we cannot meet the demand fast enough on the rapid spread of COVID-19,” Kim continued. “But mass production at Kaesong complex could start relatively quickly, with workers in North Korea waiting, if only the authorities approve.”
Resumption of the joint factory will bring about new momentum in the stalled inter-Korean relations, he stressed.
His idea has been received positively by some politicians as well as members of the public. A petition for Kaesong masks had garnered more than 10,000 signatures on the website of South Korea’s presidential office as of Wednesday.
The Busan City Council’s committee on inter-Korean relations openly voiced its support for the idea.
For the idea to be realized, there are hurdles to clear.
The US-led sanctions ban the establishment and operation of joint ventures, foreign investments and money transfers, including “bulk cash,” and the export of textiles -- which comprises the main business of the complex. In order to reopen Kaesong industrial park, Seoul needs to obtain sanction exemptions from the UN Security Council.
“It’s not impossible,” he said.
“As it is a global emergency with COVID-19, the UN could consider exempting sanctions, partially for textile firms to operate inside the complex. The question is whether Seoul is willing to take action and negotiate with Pyongyang and the US to make this work.”
Seoul’s Unification Ministry appears reluctant to make a move.
“The government maintains the position that it is necessary to resume the Kaesong industrial park, but we have to examine realistic problems that come with reopening the ceased complex,” said Yoh Sang-key, the ministry’s spokesperson.
“In order to reopen the facilities at the complex that has been halted, we need time to inspect the facilities, which could take several months. Also there is an issue of bringing all the materials, such as filters, into Kaesong.”
Additionally, there could be worries over coronavirus, as people from the two sides will come into close contact.

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