SEOUL | Managers of the Kaesong industrial park, a joint venture just north of the heavily armed border separating North and South Korea, are struggling with its mission to promote peace through economic development.
North Korea’s weekend test of a multistage rocket is one of several recent actions by the isolated nation casting doubt on its ability or willingness to deal with the outside world.
A worker from South Korea remains in a North Korean prison after more than a week, accused of verbally insulting the North’s communist leaders while at the Kaesong complex.
North Korean officials rejected a plea by Hyundai Asan President Cho Kun-shik last week to visit the prisoner, according to the South Korean Arirang News service. South Korean diplomats also have been denied access to the prisoner.
North Korean officials have given assurances that the prisoner would be kept safe, but they say no one can visit him until their investigation is complete.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak called Tuesday for the release of the detained Kaesong worker, identified by the surname Yoo in local press reports.
“His firm must demand [his release] more actively from the North, and the government must work with the international community, if necessary, to resolve the issue at an early date,” Mr. Lee told his Cabinet.
In another incident, North Korean officials recently detained hundreds of South Korean workers at the Kaesong complex, apparently as an indirect protest against joint U.S.-South Korean military drills in the South. The South Koreans, most of whom are managers, were released after several days.
At least 93 South Korean firms have factories that employ tens of thousands of North Korean workers at Kaesong - a project organized in 2004 by Hyundai Asan, an arm of the auto and industrial giant Hyundai Group.
The complex produces mainly textiles, electronics and domestic housewares. The idea of a joint venture funded by South Korea to provide jobs for impoverished North Koreans was conceived by Hyundai’s founder, the late Chung Ju-yung.
Mr. Chung, originally from North Korea, hoped to create an economic and cultural pipeline between the two Koreas to promote eventual unification of the divided peninsula.
Hyundai Asan has invested about $2 billion in the Kaesong project, but But Byun Ha-jung, a general manager with the company, recently told a group of visiting scholars from Harvard University that the project goes beyond business.
“We are not just following the money, but in our mind, we are doing something for this nation. Of course, the money is important, but sometimes it’s not the first thing,” Mr. Byun said.
“We have some kind of belief and faith that we will keep doing this.”
The incidents at Kaesong reflect a broader surge in tensions between North Korea and nations in the region, including the United States, which has troops based in South Korea and Japan.
The North went ahead Sunday with its rocket launch, defying international pressure. The North also has imprisoned two American journalists, claiming they illegally crossed the North Korean-Chinese border.
The Kaesong factories employ about 38,000 North Koreans. Hyundai Asan also funded a tourism facility elsewhere along the border that was shuttered in July after North Korean guards shot and killed a South Korean tourist.
“Our mission is survival until the situation of the two Koreas is getting better,” said Jang Hwan-bin, senior vice president at Hyundai Asan. “The goal is to narrow the economic gap within the South and North, but that goal should be proceeded by the government. We are a business enterprise, so we have to make a profit.”
Kim Yong, a North Korean defector who settled in the South decades ago, said he doubts whether Kaesong will contribute much to economic development in North Korea.
“Symbolically, I think the Kaesong industrial complex has its own meanings,” he said.
Oh Joon, a deputy minister at the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, said China will play a big role in the future of the divided peninsula.
“It will depend a lot on China’s perception of a unified Korea,” Mr. Oh said. “If they can assume a unified Korea will not be hostile to China, then they can live with that. We are trying to make sure to our neighboring countries that a reunified country would be in the interest of all our neighbors.”