North Korea Pulls Workers From Factories It Runs With South

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea said on Monday that it was withdrawing all its 53,000 workers from an industrial park jointly run with South Korea, casting doubt on the future of the last remaining symbol of inter-Korean reconciliation.
The Kaesong industrial complex, in the North Korean border town of the same name, operated for eight years despite political and military tension, including the North Korean artillery attack on a South Korean island three years ago. North Korea’s decision to withdraw its workers, although it called the move “temporary,” presented the most serious challenge to its viability.
North Korea “will temporarily suspend the operations in the zone and examine the issue of whether it will allow its existence or close it,” the country’s official Korean Central News Agency quoted Kim Yang-gon, a secretary of the Central Committee of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party of Korea, as saying after his visit to Kaesong on Monday. The North’s final decision will depend on the Seoul government’s attitude, he said, making it clear that Pyongyang was using the future of the factory park to pressure Seoul for political concessions.
Hours earlier, South Korea said it had no intention of offering dialogue with North Korea. Doing so amid a torrent of North Korean threats to attack Seoul and Washington with nuclear weapons would be tantamount to capitulation and would only embolden the North’s brinkmanship, officials here said. “If the Kaesong project is stopped and we have to pull our workers completely, it will be a tremendous setback to South-North relations,” Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae of South Korea said during a parliamentary hearing. “If we can bring about concrete results through dialogue, perhaps we will swallow our pride and start dialogue, but this is not such a time.”
“We don’t need photo-ops or talks for talk’s sake,” he said.
North Korea has blocked South Korean managers and cargo trucks from crossing the heavily armed border to Kaesong for six days to protest United Nations sanctions and joint military drills that the United States and South Korea are conducting on the Korean Peninsula. The blockade quickly dried up the fuel, food and raw materials for 123 South Korean factories there, forcing 20 of them to stop operating as of Monday, even before the North’s decision to pull out its workers.
More than 470 South Koreans remained in Kaesong on Monday, hoping that the North would lift the blockade. Long lines of South Korean trucks loaded with supplies for the Kaesong factories were stalled at the border on Monday, waiting in vain for the North to let them cross.
For nearly a decade, the complex, where South Korean factories hire North Korean workers and the North’s Communist authorities experienced the first taste of South Korean capitalism, has been held up as a test case for how reunification of the two Koreas might look. The complex, near the western edge of the border of the two Koreas, produced $470 million worth of textiles and other labor-intensive products last year.
As relations deteriorated in recent years, however, the complex has also become controversial in South Korea. Some conservative South Koreans argued that the complex, which generates $90 million a year in wages for 53,000 North Koreans employed there, extended a lifeline to the North Korean regime, which the South blamed for the island attack and the 2010 sinking of a South Korean warship that killed 46 sailors. North Korea’s threat to close the complex earlier this month was met with some skepticism from some media analysts who indicated that the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, would not want to risk an important source of hard currency.
North Korea has issued a daily barrage of bellicose rhetoric since early March, denouncing the United States and South Korea for the joint military drills and spearheading United Nations sanctions following a nuclear test in February, its third.
In the past week, North Korea appeared to move beyond rhetoric. It told foreign embassies in Pyongyang to consider evacuating their personnel because of rising tension and it moved one of its medium-range missiles to its east coast for a possible test launch, which South Korea said could happen as early as this week.
On Monday, South Korean officials reported activities at North Korea’s main nuclear test site, but said it was too early to tell whether the country would conduct another underground nuclear test despite escalating tensions. North Korea detonated a nuclear device on Feb. 12 inside one of the two tunnels it was believed to have prepared in its main test site in the northeastern of the country.
South Korea has lately detected vehicle, cargo and personnel movements around the entrance of the other unused tunnel, officials here said. “For now, we don’t see them as an indication of a nuclear test,” said Kim Min-seok, a spokesman of the Defense Ministry. “But since they prepared both tunnels for the last test, we believe that once North Korea makes up its mind, it can conduct another nuclear test any time.”
The measured statement came as South Korean officials were still unsure whether North Korea intended to push ahead with another nuclear test, which would trigger more United Nations sanctions and aggravate tensions, or was posturing to draw Washington and Seoul back to the negotiating table. "How far can they take this?" asked Kim Yong-hyun, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul, saying that the prolonged standoff between Pyongyang and its American and South Korean foes carried a considerable political and economic risk for both Koreas.
The closure of the Kaesong complex suggested the Pyongyang regime is subordinating possible economic changes to its political and military priorities.
It was also a blow to factory owners who have invested millions of dollars with government encouragement during the years when Seoul pushed for economic cooperation as a way of building political reconciliation. Faced with the prospect of closing their factories, they urged the government to start dialogue with Pyongyang to help defuse tensions.