PAJU, South Korea – North Korea closed access to a joint factory zone with South Korea today, officials said, putting at risk $2 billion a year in trade that is vital for an impoverished state with a huge army, nuclear ambitions and a hungry population.
The move marked an escalation in North Korea’s months-long standoff with South Korea and its ally Washington. Yesterday, Pyongyang said it would restart a mothballed nuclear reactor, drawing criticism from the international community, including China, its major benefactor and diplomatic friend.
In Beijing, China’s deputy foreign minister met ambassadors from the United States and both Koreas to express “serious concern” about the Korean peninsula, China’s Foreign Ministry said, in a sign China is increasingly worried about events spinning out of control. The ministry said the meetings with Deputy Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui took place yesterday.
South makes demands
South Korea demanded Pyongyang allow access to the Kaesong Industrial Park, which lies just inside North Korea.
It said North Korea would allow the roughly 800 South Korean factory managers and workers in the zone to return home, but added that only 36 had opted to do so on today, indicating factories were still operating.
Those remaining in the zone were there by choice but could run out of food because all supplies needed to be trucked in from South Korea, said the Unification Ministry, which handles Seoul’s matters with North Korea.
“If this issue is prolonged, the government is aware of such a situation materialising,” ministry spokesman Kim Hyung-suk told reporters when asked about food shortages.
The industrial park has not formally stopped operations since it was inaugurated in 2000 as part of efforts to improve ties between the two Koreas. It houses 123 companies and employs 50,000 North Koreans making cheap goods such as clothing.
Some South Korean experts said the North’s move might be temporary given the park is a financial lifeline to Pyongyang.
At the South Korean border city of Paju, there was a sense of foreboding that Kaesong would be closed permanently, dealing a death blow to the one remaining example of cooperation between the two Koreas.
The zone has major symbolic value for both North and South Korea. It generates cash for the North and acts as beacon for the economic prosperity of the South inside the grim, centrally planned North Korean economy where jobs are scarce.
“The North Korean workers there are said to have 300,000 family members,” said Ahn Chan-il, a former North Korean military official who defected to the South in 1979.
“Does electricity go off in the Kaesong factories at any time? No. But North Korean factories see that happen to their facilities all the time.”
War of words
North Korea’s latest war of words with Seoul and Washington ratcheted up when the United Nations imposed fresh sanctions on the country for its February 12 nuclear test. At the same time, South Korea and the United States have been staging annual war games, which Pyongyang claims are a prelude to an invasion.
Despite the rhetoric and the cutting of telephone hot lines to the South, Pyongyang has not taken any military action and shows no sign of preparing its 1.2 million strong armed forces for war, Washington says. (Reuters)