North Korea has assigned workers withdrawn from the Kaesong Industrial Complex to new jobs, indicating that Pyongyang wants the joint project with South Korea to be shuttered and had planned its closure way in advance, according to a North Korean source in China.
Another North Korean in China confirmed the deployment of the North Korean workers elsewhere but said it could be a temporary measure.
Fears of a permanent end to the rare joint venture project between the two Koreas intensified Tuesday as Pyongyang ignored a plea by South Korean businessmen to visit the complex for talks on its future.
There has also been speculation that North Korea wanted to end the venture as a ploy to use it again as a manufacturing center of its own.
Operations at the industrial complex, located just north of the heavily fortified border, ground to a halt earlier this month after Pyongyang said it was “temporarily suspending” the project and pulling out its 53,000 workers at the complex following weeks of threats of war against South Korea and the U.S.
'Bent' on closing
One North Korean source in China said he had heard that most of the workers had been sent to assignments in other locations.
“I heard from a high-ranking official that two thirds of the North Korean workers at Kaesong were reassigned to rural areas and the others were relocated to sewing factories in North Korea,” he told RFA’s Korean Service, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“The North Korean government reassigned them quickly, so I suspect that North Korea was bent on closing the Kaesong Industrial Complex,” he said.
A second source in China said he too had heard that the workers had been relocated, but added that the new assignments could be short-term ones.
“It is too early to conclude that North Korea had a plan to close the complex,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“The North Korean government might think this conflict won’t wrap up in the short term, so they could have reassigned the workers temporarily.”
South Korean workers
All but seven of the 800 South Korean employees who managed the North Korean workers at Kaesong have left the zone since Pyongyang’s April 8 announcement that it was suspending the project.
Forty-three South Koreans who had remained at the facility returned home on Tuesday, leaving the seven supervisors behind to negotiate unpaid wages, South Korean officials said.
Seoul had announced Friday that it was ordering the workers home after Pyongyang blocked access to the site and refused to open talks on restarting the stalled operations.
About 10 leaders of the group of South Korean firms with factories at the complex had sought to visit North Korea on Tuesday for talks aimed at avoiding a permanent closure to the project, which is a key currency earner for cash-strapped North Korea.
But North Korea did not respond to their request, making the trip impossible, Agence France-Presse reported.
'Window for dialogue'
On Monday, South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se told a forum in Seoul that "the window for dialogue is still open" on keeping the project open, according to Yonhap News Agency.
The Kaesong 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 by North Korea and its shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in 2010.
One Pyongyang resident said the withdrawal of workers from the zone could be part of a plan by North Korea to take over the industrial complex’s facilities, in the same way it took over the Mount Kumgang resort started by a South Korean company.
“It seems to be a North Korean government trick,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity while on a trip to China.
“They want to take ownership of the Kaesong Industrial Complex, using the same trick as the one they used with Mount Kumgang to get the facilities.”
The Mount Kumgang resort, which offered sightseeing for South Korean tourists, was shut down after a South Korean housewife was shot dead by a North Korean soldier near the hotel in 2008.
In 2010, North Korea seized assets owned by the South Korean government in the project and sent home South Koreans who had stayed to look after the resort’s hotels and restaurants, later starting up tours for international tourists at the site on its own.
North Korea has been stepping up threats of nuclear war since the United Nations imposed sanctions in response to Pyongyang's defiant third nuclear test in February.
The North said South Korean authorities and “military warmongers” had sought to turn the Kaesong complex into a “hotbed of confrontation.”
Reported by Joon Ho Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Goeun Yu. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.