By Hyonhee Shin
SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea on Friday approved a request by businessmen to visit their factories in North Korea for what would be the first time since South Korea's 2016 suspension of operations at a jointly run industrial park that was for years a symbol of cooperation.
Previous attempts by the South Korean businessmen to visit the Kaesong industrial park, just on the North Korean side of their heavily fortified border, foundered because of U.S. concern about a weakening of sanctions on North Korea.
Some 200 businessmen asked late last month for a chance to visit the park, the fifth such request they made since President Moon Jae-in took office in 2017 on a platform of re-engagement with the North.
"The government decided to approve the businessmen’s trip to protect our citizens’ property rights," said Lee Sang-min, a spokesman for the Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs and had previously declined their requests.
South Koreans have to obtain approval to contact North Koreans or travel there.
Lee said the government would "make necessary efforts to facilitate the visit". North Korea still has to approve it.
The Kaesong complex began operating in 2004 with South Korean factories employing North Korean workers.
It was an important source of revenue for the impoverished North with about 120 South Korean companies paying double the roughly $70 a month minimum wage in North Korea for the 55,000 workers there.
South Korea suspended operations in 2016 after the North launched a rocket that put an object into orbit.
International sanctions imposed on North Korea over its nuclear and missile programmes ban most economic engagement with it and there is no sign that the sanctions will be eased any time soon.
Nevertheless, a visit by the businessmen would be a symbolic step at a time of rising tension since the collapse of a second summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump in Vietnam in February.
The businessmen said they wanted to inspect their facilities, which have been idle since 2016. They also want to check on a report on North Korean propaganda websites that it had resumed some operations in Kaesong on its own.
North and South Korea are technically still at war after the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce, not a treaty.
There is concern in the United States that the early resumption of operations at the industrial zone could undercut its sanctions campaign aimed at denuclearising North Korea.
When South Korea exited Kaesong, it said the North had diverted wages paid to its workers to fund its weapons programmes. But shortly after Moon took power, a government official said there was no hard evidence to back that up.
Moon has been hoping for a resumption of economic links with North Korea and he met its leader, Kim, three times last year.
Moon has said South Korea could help the United States in its efforts to get North Korea to give up its nuclear programme by providing concessions for North Korean steps, such as reopening Kaesong and a tourist zone.
Kim said in a New Year speech he was willing to resume both the factory and tour programmes "without conditions".
But tension has again risen in recent weeks, with the North firing short-range missiles and multiple projectiles.
South Korea also announced on Friday that it would pursue a plan to provide $8 million in humanitarian aid to North Korea, through international organisations like the World Food Programme.
North Korea has said it is facing historic droughts and aid agencies have warned of possible food shortages.
(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin)