SEOUL, South Korea -- North and South Korea reopened their jointly run industrial complex Monday, reviving a lone symbol of economic cooperation five months after it was shuttered amid the North's threats of preemptive nuclear attack.
Thousands of North Korean workers returned to the Kaesong zone, located north of the border. From the South, more than 500 trucks, vans and cars formed a bottleneck at a checkpoint at the heavily armed border, carrying supplies and company executives to the site to restart factories. More than 120 companies operate at Kaesong, including watchmaker Romanson Co., and Shinwon Corp., an apparel maker.
"My heart's in aflutter now that Kaesong is restarting," Lee Mun-yong, who works for South Korean cellular phone parts maker Jaeyoung Solutec Co. Ltd., said near the checkpoint. "North Korean workers are looking both relieved to have their jobs back and determined to work harder. The past five months has been a time of crisis for them."
North Korea pulled its 53,000 workers out of Kaesong in April, capping months of tensions after it conducted a third nuclear test in February and threatened pre-emptive attacks when the United Nations stepped up sanctions and the United States and South Korea held annual military drills. Kaesong has provided Kim Jong Un's regime with much-needed hard currency and been a source of cheap labor for South Korean companies.
"It would not have been easy for North Korea to give up Kaesong because it's a valuable source of hard currency," Choi Chang-ryul, a professor of liberal arts at Yong In University near Seoul and a political commentator, said by phone.
At the border Monday, a line of people formed at a currency exchange booth run by Woori Bank, changing South Korean won for U.S. dollars, the only currency that can be used at Kaesong. Other South Korean workers shook hands and laughed as they chatted in groups inside the transit office.
"I'm glad I'm finally returning after so many twists and turns," said Shin Han-yong, president of Shinhan Trading, which produces fishing nets at Kaesong. "We didn't get to fish at all this spring and summer, so to speak. But I held on to the hope that Kaesong would open again."
The agreement to reopen Kaesong paved the way for a separate accord to revive reunions of families separated by the Korean War. The next round will be held at a mountain resort in North Korea between Sept. 25-30.
South Korean tours to the Mount Geumgang resort on the eastern coast were another symbol of detente before being halted in 2008 when a North Korean guard shot and killed a South Korean visitor.
Relations between the Koreas have improved in recent weeks, even as international concerns mount that the North may have reactivated its 5-megawatt nuclear reactor capable of producing one bomb's worth of plutonium every year.