UN Chief Ban to Visit North Korea Factories to Ease Tensions

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United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will tour the Gaeseong industrial park on Thursday. Photographer: Jason Alden/Bloomberg

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will visit an inter-Korean factory park in North Korea on Thursday in a bid to ease tensions between the two countries.

“All parties would benefit from a renewed engagement and commitment to genuine dialogue,” Ban said at a press briefing after addressing the World Education Forum in Incheon, South Korea. “In this regard, I want to announce that I am going to visit the Gaeseong Industrial Complex this Thursday.”

The trip would make Ban the first UN chief to visit North Korea in more than 20 years, and only one to tour the Gaeseong complex, which opened as a symbol of inter-Korean reconciliation in 2004. Boutros Boutros-Ghali was the last UN chief to visit the isolated country in 1992.

Ban, 70, said he would tour South Korean businesses operating in the complex and also meet North Korean workers. His trip was finalized by the North Korean authorities Tuesday morning, and the exact list of the people he will meet, will be confirmed Wednesday, he added.

The complex is located in Gaeseong, 10 kilometers (6 miles) north of the demilitarized zone that separates the two Koreas. Some 124 South Korean companies employed about 54,000 North Korean workers as of January, according to data provided by South Korea’s Unification Ministry.

Wage Dispute

The two Koreas have been in a dispute over the site since last year, when the North said it would scrap the ceiling for annual wage increases at the plant that was previously set at 5 percent. The decision was criticized by South Korean Unification was was Minister Lim Byeong Cheol. North Korea said in February it would raise the monthly minimum wage to $74 from $70.35, an increase of 5.2 percent, South Korea’s Yonhap News reported at the time.

North Korea has temporarily shut down the complex before, as it did in 2013 after tensions arose over the North’s third nuclear test and its protest of U.S.-South Korean military drills. Such a move deprives the Kim Jong Un’s government of a key source of hard currency, as South Korean companies give workers’ paychecks to the North Korean authorities and not directly to the laborers.

“Inter-Korean relations can cool down depending on the circumstances, but I think it’s a relief and encouraging that the Gaeseong project can continue despite the political situation,” Ban said in his mother tongue Korean, calling the complex a “win-win model.” “It’s important to emphasize this because such practical cooperation can serve as an opportunity to broaden the scope of political dialogue.”

’No Ulterior Motives’

Before assuming helm of the UN in 2007, Ban served as a South Korean diplomat and participated in the six-nation talks aimed at curbing North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. His second and final term ends in December 2016, which has prompted speculation in his home country that Ban might seek to run in the local presidential election the following year.

“I want to make it clear that my diplomatic move -- doing my utmost as UN secretary-general to bring about any practical progress in inter-Korean relations -- shouldn’t be seen as having an ulterior motive,” Ban said.

The South Korean government welcomes Ban’s visit and hopes that the trip would contribute to progress, the foreign ministry said in a statement. There were no immediate comments released by the North Korean government or its state media.

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