PAJU, South Korea (AP) — Eight South Korean lawmakers made a high-profile visit Friday to a modern factory park that sits just across the world's most heavily armed border and represents the last major cooperative initiative between the two rival Koreas.
The 123 South Korean companies operating at the jointly run industrial park in the North Korean border city of Kaesong are producing hundreds of millions of dollars worth of products and adding workers despite political animosity that keeps the two governments from formally speaking to each other.
North Korea allowed one South Korean legislator to visit Kaesong last year, but Friday's trip is the highest-profile visit to the factory by South Koreans since North Koreans observed an 11-day mourning period for late leader Kim Jong Il, who died in December, and declared his son, Kim Jong Un, supreme commander of the 1.2 million-strong military.
The lawmakers didn't meet with North Korean officials, Rep. Park Joo-sun of the opposition Democratic United Party said after returning from Kaesong. The delegation toured South Korean-built infrastructure and several factories in the 1.3-square-mile (3.3-square-kilometer) industrial zone and exchanged casual greetings with North Korean workers, Park said. The lawmakers weren't accompanied by reporters.
Park said South Korean workers complained to the delegation about Seoul's restriction on bringing in new heavy equipment. Seoul has maintained the restriction since May 2010, when it accused the North of torpedoing a South Korean warship and killing 46 sailors. Pyongyang denies any role in the sinking.
Seoul, which does not allow its citizens to visit the North without approval, has also restricted the number of South Koreans allowed to live and work at the plant since violence in 2010 plunged ties between the Koreas to a low point. The Korean peninsula is in a technical state of war because the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce.
Still, despite the tension, the Kaesong factory zone has managed to grow. The South Korean government says an increasing number of companies are interested in the nearby, cheap labor source that Kaesong represents.
The Unification Ministry in Seoul said this week that the South Korean companies operating in the zone now employ more than 50,000 North Korean workers, a 110 percent jump from four years earlier, when relations between the Koreas started deteriorating.
Last year, the factory park produced $400 million worth of electronic goods, kitchenware, clothes, shoes, food and other labor-intensive products, according to the ministry, which handles exchanges with North Korea. That's a 60 percent increase from 2008, when conservative President Lee Myung-bak took power in South Korea with a tough policy that cut off no-strings-attached aid for North Korea, linking assistance to progress on nuclear disarmament demands.
North Korea recently said inter-Korean talks are possible, but only if South Korea answers a long list of preconditions. That marks a step back from an earlier vow by North Korea to shun the Lee government as a dialogue partner.
South Korea this week offered talks with Pyongyang on curbing pests near a historic site in North Korea. Pyongyang has yet to formally respond.
The Kaesong industrial complex opened in 2004, six years after the two Koreas began a cross-border tour project at a resort on Diamond Mountain on the North's east coast. Those tours were suspended after a South Korean tourist was shot and killed by a North Korean guard in 2008. That leaves the Kaesong venture as the last remaining major symbol of reconciliation.
With relations so frigid between the countries, the fact that Pyongyang gave consent to Friday's visit by South Korean lawmakers is meaningful, said Ryoo Kihl-jae, a professor at Seoul's University of North Korean Studies.
The workers — more than 70 percent of whom are female, according to the ministry — receive a steady source of income. Unification Ministry officials said their monthly wages are around $110; about half of that goes to North Korean authorities, while the workers get the rest in North Korean currency or coupons.
Kim reported from Seoul, South Korea.