Updated at 4:15 p.m. EDT on 2013-04-08
North Korea said Monday it will pull its workers from an industrial park it runs with South Korea, taking a step closer to shutting down the last major intra-Korean cooperation project following weeks of provocations against the South and its ally the United States.
North Korea is “temporarily suspending” operations in the Kaesong Industrial Complex while it considers closing down the project permanently, the state-run Korean Central News Agency quoted Central Committee of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea Secretary Kim Yang Gon as saying.
All North Korean workers are being withdrawn from the zone because South Korean authorities and “military warmongers” had sought to turn it into a “hotbed of confrontation,” the announcement said, but did not give a deadline for the pullout.
The announcement follows a move last Wednesday by North Korea—which has been issuing vitriolic threats of nuclear war since the United Nations imposed sanctions in response to Pyongyang's defiant third nuclear weapon test in February— to ban South Korean workers and supply trucks from entering Kaesong.
South Koreans already there were allowed to remain in the park, where more than 50,000 North Koreans work for 120 businesses from the South.
Ok Sung-seok, vice-chairman of the Corporate Association of Kaesong Industrial Complex (CAKIC) of South Korean businesses operating in the zone, said the recall of North Korean workers dealt a greater blow to the project than last week’s ban.
“From today the damage to the Kaesong Industrial Complex will grow dramatically,” he told RFA’s Korean Service.
The South Korean companies in the complex are running low on food supplies and facing other operational difficulties since supply trucks have been prevented from entering Kaesong, he said.
Some 475 South Korean workers remained at the complex as of Monday, with 77 of them scheduled to return to Seoul on Tuesday, according to the South’s Yonhap News Agency.
Seoul’s Unification Ministry, which is responsible for relations with the North, issued a statement saying Seoul will act "calmly and firmly" and will make its best efforts to secure the safety of South Koreans at Kaesong.
Symbol of cooperation
Located just north of the heavily fortified border between the two countries, the Kaesong complex is a key currency earner for cash-strapped North Korea.
North Korean workers employed there would be disappointed to see the park close permanently, a resident in western North Korea's South Hwanghae province said.
"Working in the Kaesong Industrial Complex has been popular among North Korean workers because the North Korean government provides them with stable food distribution," the source told RFA, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"But if the complex closes, the workers will suffer from the food shortages, especially in this season of spring poverty."
A symbol of cooperation between the two countries, the complex had remained in operation through previous crises in intra-Korean relations in its nine-year history, including the sinking of a South Korean warship and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in 2010.
But tensions have been running high in the Korean Peninsula since Pyongyang conducted its third nuclear test on Feb. 12.
South Korea’s Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl Jae said at a parliamentary session on Monday that there is an “indication” that Pyongyang is preparing for a fourth nuclear test, a day after another Seoul official said a missile test may be in the works.
But Ryoo took back the comment later Monday, saying he had misspoken.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Monday urged North Korea not to carry out a new nuclear test, saying it would be a “provocative measure” that would breach Security Council resolutions, while the U.N.’s atomic watchdog chief called Pyongyang’s drive to restart a nuclear site "troubling.”
Yukiya Amano, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said his team could not detect whether the regime planned a new nuclear test due to a lack of access to the country.
North and South Korea have technically been at war for the last 60 years, as the 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice rather than a formal peace treaty.
Last month, however, North Korea said that it would no longer be bound by the truce, in protest against South Korea’s joint military exercises with the United States.
North Korea’s neighbors have warned North Korea against further ratcheting up tensions, with Russian President Vladimir Putin saying on Monday that conflict on the peninsula could cause greater devastation than the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986.
The day before, China’s President Xi Jinping warned against any “troublemaking” on its doorstep.
Reported by RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Bong Park. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.