April 3, 2013

N. Korea refuses to let S. Koreans enter joint factory

Kim Yong-Ho and Sam Kim / The Associated Press

PAJU, South Korea — When North Korea allegedly torpedoed a South Korean ship in 2010, killing 46 sailors, an industrial park jointly operated by South Korean companies and the North's government kept on running. When Pyongyang rained artillery shells on a Seoul-held island later that year, the park's factories continued churning out goods.

click image to enlarge

In this Sept. 21, 2012, photo, North Korean workers assemble Western-style suits at the South Korean-run ShinWon Corp. garment factory inside the Kaesong industrial complex in Kaesong, North Korea.

AP

But in the latest sign that North Korea's warlike stance toward South Korea and the United States is moving from words to action, Pyongyang on Wednesday barred South Korean managers and trucks delivering supplies from crossing the border to enter the Kaesong industrial park. It's an announcement that further escalates a torrent of provocations analysts say is aimed at pressuring the U.S. and South Korea to change their policies toward Pyongyang.

The Kaesong move came a day after Pyongyang said it would restart its long-shuttered plutonium reactor and a uranium enrichment plant. Both could produce fuel for nuclear weapons that Pyongyang is developing and has threatened to hurl at the U.S. but which experts don't think it will be able to accomplish for years.

The North's rising rhetoric has been met by a display of U.S. military strength, including flights of nuclear-capable bombers and stealth jets at the annual South Korean-U.S. military drills that the allies call routine and North Korea claims are invasion preparations.

The Kaesong industrial park started producing goods in 2004 and has been an unusual point of cooperation in an otherwise hostile relationship between the Koreas, whose three-year war ended in 1953 with an armistice. Its continued operation even through past episodes of high tension, and the park's high economic value to impoverished North Korea, has reassured foreign multinationals that another Korean War is unlikely and their investments in prosperous dynamic South Korea are safe.

"What we are seeing right now is something that was less expected, that is, less directly in North Korea's interests," said Patrick Cronin, a senior analyst with the Washington-based Center for a New American Security. "Is this a short-term demonstration of North Korean dissatisfaction with U.S-South Korean policy, or a portent of something more drastic at Kaesong," he said.

Drastic could range from a complete shutdown of Kaesong to North Korea taking South Korean workers at the facility hostage, which is a risk that has long hung over the joint project, Cronin said.

On Tuesday, a senior South Korean government official said Seoul has a contingency plan for its citizens in Kaesong, which number over 800 on weekdays. Most South Korean managers at Kaesong return to South Korea on the weekends. The official spoke on condition of anonymity, saying he was not authorized to speak publicly to the media.

It is unclear how long North Korea will prevent South Koreans from entering the industrial park, which is located in the grim North Korean border city of Kaesong and provides jobs for more than 50,000 North Koreans who make goods such as textiles, clothing and electronic components. The last major disruption at the park amid tensions over U.S.-South Korean military drills in 2009 lasted just three days.

Seoul's Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Hyung-suk said Pyongyang was allowing South Koreans to return home from Kaesong. Some 33 workers of about 860 South Koreans at Kaesong returned Wednesday. But Kim said about 480 South Koreans who had planned to travel to the park Wednesday were being refused entry.

Trucks streamed back into South Korea through its Paju border checkpoint in the morning, just minutes after heading through it, after being refused entry into the North.

Pyongyang threatened last week to shut down the park, which is run with North Korean labor and South Korean know-how. It expressed anger over South Korean media reports that said North Korea hadn't yet shut the park because it is a source of crucial hard currency for the impoverished country.

(Continued on page 2)

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