Inter-Korean Customs, Immigration and Quarantine Office Opens in 2003 ㅣ North Korea Inside ㅣ KBS WORLD Radio

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Inter-Korean Customs, Immigration and Quarantine Office Opens in 2003


ⓒ KBS News

Earlier this year, participants in the 21st Inter-Korean family reunions passed through the Customs, Immigration and Quarantine Office, or CIQ, on their way to Mount Kumgang for a 3-day reunion with family members, after which they returned via the same route. The CIG has served as South Korea’s gateway to and from North Korea since it opened in 2003. Today, we’ll take a look at how it got started with the help of Mr. Kim Joong Tae of the Unification Council of Korea, who was the first head-of-office at the CIQ.

I was appointed as the first head of the CIQ on November 20, 2003. At the time, the CIQ’s establishment was significant, as it is the first government body established to monitor the inter-Korean transit of personnel, goods and vehicles. With the headquarters located at the western end of the Military Demarcation Line towards the west of the peninsula, and another office near the east coast, I felt a great sense of responsibility as the chief in charge of both offices. I also remember feeling proud to see inter-Korean history first hand.

On November 20, 2003, Mr. Kim Joong-tae was deeply honored to be appointed as the inaugural head of the CIQ. Following the two Korea’s 2000 agreement to reconnect the Gyeongui Railway, the CIQ, which was to be in charge of all customs services at the border, was to be opened in a month’s time. 

The division of South and North Korea resulted in the severance of all railways and roads that once connected the two sides. In other words, the arteries connecting the South and North were cut off. However, a month after the June 2000 Inter-Korean Summit, the two sides agreed to reconnect cross-border railways and roads. The groundbreaking ceremony for the Kaesong Industrial Complex was held in June of 2003, and in September that same year, tours to the North’s Kumgang Mountain began transiting overland rather than sea, effectively kick-starting an era of significant overland transportation between the two Koreas. In support of such developments, the Unification Ministry officially founded the CIQ on November 20, 2003, and the opening ceremony for the building was held on December 24 to announce the launch of the CIQ. 

Prior to the opening of the CIQ, Panmunjom was the only passageway connecting South and North Korea. But the room for communications between the two sides were expanded when two CIQ offices were set up to aid the overland exchanges of personnel and goods – one at Dorasan Station, the northern most station of Gyeongui Railway in South Korea, and the other in Goseong County, Gangwon Province, on the Donghae Line.  Gyeongui Line CIQ Office was first to start operations with an opening ceremony held on December 24, 2003. The office handled inter-Korean personnel and material exchanges, as well as inter-Korean communications and services related to entry and exit, customs and quarantine. Because of the special circumstances surrounding inter-Korean relations, the CIQ is different from the Korea Immigration Service, both in name and function.   

The Korea Immigration Service under the Ministry of Justice is what most are familiar with. But due to the unique nature of inter-Korean relations, the CIQ was given a different name and function. The basis for this decision comes from the Inter-Korean Basic Agreement of 1991. In it, the two Koreas agreed to recognize that their relations, not being a relationship between different states, constitute a special interim relationship stemming from the process towards reunification. Therefore, inter-Korean trade is not regarded as international trade, but as tariff-free intra-state trade. Hence, the CIQ was given a special name.   

Located right in front of the Southern Limit Line of the Demilitarized Zone, the Gyeongui Line CIQ Office functions as a special customs and quarantine service on the border of a divided nation, rather than a customs service overlooking international exchanges. Founded with hopes of it one day becoming the gateway toward reunification, the CIQ’s operations went into full swing in 2006, with the completion of the Donghae Line CIQ Office. On March 15, 2006, while the Donghae Line CIQ Office held its completion ceremony, Gyeongui Line CIQ Office also adapted new wireless entry and logistics management systems using radio frequency identification, or RFID technology, enabling swifter passage and customs services. The upgrade was made in response to rapid annual increases of inter-Korean transit through the CIQ, with the number of people traveling to and from the North reaching over 400,000 and that of vehicles reaching over 58,000 in 2005. 

Those who traveled to and from North Korea through the Gyeongui Line CIQ Office included people entering the Kaesong Industrial Complex such as workers and buyers, as well as those transporting raw materials to, and finished goods from Kaesong. So the number of travelers was quite high. In the summer, northbound trips occurred 11 times, while 10 southbound trips from Kaesong took place. As for Kumgang Mountain, 5 northbound and 3 southbound trips were made. In short, between around 23 entry and exit records were made through the Gyeongui Line CIQ Office each day, at 30 minute or one hour intervals. I remember it being very busy. 

The people and goods passing through the CIQ varied. From workers and business owners at Kaesong Industrial Complex, the symbol of inter-Korean economic cooperation, to tourists going to Kumgang Mountain; fertilizer and rice aids; companies bringing in aggregates from the North, and scholar, the CIQ developed into a literal gateway for inter-Korean economic and academic exchanges. By 2012, the number of people who passed through the Gyeongui Line CIQ Office topped the 1-million mark, just 9 years after the office opened. In 2007, then president Roh Moo-hyun even passed through the office to reach the North for the Second Inter-Korean Summit. On the eastern end, the number of people who passed through the Donghae Line CIQ Office for the Kumgang Mountain tours reached 1.55 million by 2006. The CIQ had effectively become the connecting point, and the venue for exchanges and passages for the South and the North. But…  

In 2008, the death of a South Korean tourist gunned down by a North Korean soldier led to the temporary closure of the CIQ. Since the Kaesong Industrial Complex closed in 2016, the CIQ was never the same again, with no crowds to be seen. Inter-Korean relations rapidly deteriorated, and the CIQ found itself at risk. However, things have begun to improve at the CIQ offices this year.

The CIQ was in the spotlight once again when a North Korean delegation including dozens of athletes visited South Korea to compete in the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in February. Countless journalists from home and abroad were also gathered there during the inter-Korean summit held on April 27. As reporters’ access to Panmunjom, the summit’s venue, had been limited, they were gathered at the CIQ in order to deliver the news from as close to the venue as they could. When he saw the CIQ looking as busy and lively as it had been last decade, Mr. Kim Joong-tae began to believe again in the dreams he had for his office and inter-Korean relations.    

If the North Korean nuclear issue is solved soon, and sanctions on North Korea are lifted, inter-Korean relations will be normalized, as will the operation of Kaesong Industrial Complex and tours to Kumgang Mountain and Kaesong. When that happens, I believe the CIQ will be able to fulfill its original role as the gateway for inter-Korean travels, and also as the outpost for Korean reunification. In his National Liberation Day address on August 15, President Moon Jae-in stressed the importance of international cooperation for the creation of the East Asian Railroad Community. It is my great hope that we will soon be able to depart from Seoul Station, or even Busan Station to travel on the “Iron Silkroad” to reach Europe, and that the CIQ will serve as the frontier of that movement. 

When the CIQ first opened, its former chief Kim Joong-tae dreamed of the day that South Koreans would be able to travel to Pyongyang or Kaesong and return home in a single day through the CIQ. Moreover, he hoped the CIQ would become the starting point of the “Iron Silkroad” connecting the nation with Europe via North Korea and China. Here’s hoping that the CIQ, the gateway connecting the overland route between South and North Korea, will indeed become the outpost for reunification, through normalization of inter-Korean economic cooperation and exchanges. 

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