SEOUL – Access to the joint North-South Korean Kaesong Industrial Complex has been closed by North Korea – South Korean workers are allowed to travel back to the Southern side, but the traffic is one way.
The KCNA said this morning that Kim Jong Un is to issue a “final order,” to end North Korea’s “long-standing history of showdown with the U.S.”
“The aggressors and provocateurs will face a disgraceful ruin in the final battle [for reunification] to be started soon, and the great Korean nation will greet the bright day of national reunification,” the article said.
Pyongyang threatened to close the joint industrial zone, which is seen as a major source of trade income for North Korea, after it accused the South Korean media of “ridiculing” the North for keeping the complex open, despite its threatening rhetoric. Pyongyang introduced an entry ban to the industrial zone in 2009, during exercise “Key Resolve” – the same exercise the U.S.–South Korean militaries are currently engaged in.
“South Korea’s government deeply regrets the entry ban and urges it to be lifted immediately,” a Ministry of Unification spokesman told reporters gathered at a press conference in Seoul, South Korean-based news agency Yonhap reported.
Many analysts have been viewing the continuation of operations in the joint industrial zone as a litmus test for a genuine increase in tensions. The South Korean government as a contingency plan in the event of a hostage situation, Reuters reported, although was unable to expand on what that plan involved.
“Limiting access to Kaesong raises the stakes a little in Pyongyang’s high tension game of diplomatic and political chess, but its too early to say whether this increases the risk of actual conflict on the peninsula,” John Swenson-Wright, Chatham House fellow and lecturer in East Asian International Relations at the University of Cambridge, told NK NEWS.
“Much will depend on long-term developments and with over 800 South Koreans reportedly still in Kaesong and showing no immediate interest in leaving, it seems unlikely that the North is preparing for actual conflict.”
Roughly 800 South Koreans live in the joint industrial zone during the week, with over 1000 commuting daily. 446 citizens were due to cross the border back into South Korea today, although reports on the ground suggest many may delay their return, fearing a lack of access later in the week. South Korean media reported this afternoon that South Korean soldiers had replaced customs and immigration officials at the Southern side of the border crossing. Six South Korean workers are known to have already returned, as scheduled.
The decision by Pyongyang is the latest escalation in a long line of threats, ranging from preemptive nuclear strikes to missile attacks on U.S. military bases in the Pacific. North Korea views on-going joint U.S.-South Korean drills as a dress rehearsal for the invasion of its territory.
Some observers argue the move is designed to drive a wedge between South Korea and its allies, and to take charge of an increasingly unpredictable situation on the Korean peninsula.
“This is likely another provocation – an unhelpful effort to prod and antagonize both the South Koreans and the Americans – and to control the pace and focus for the current crisis,” Dr. Swenson-Wright told NK NEWS in Seoul.
“The DPRK has temporarily suspended access to Kaesong in the past, and I imagine (and hope) this latest development is consistent with past patterns.”
The Kaesong Industrial Complex was a joint venture between North Korea and South Korea begun during the Roh Moo-hyun administration, but was a product of a summit between Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong Il. The complex features 123 South Korean companies who employ over 53,500 North Korean workers.
The complex is especially beneficial for North Korea, bringing in an estimated $470 million dollars in the past year alone.
North Korea has not indicated for how long entry to Kaesong will be banned. At present, access is only closed today; business could potentially resume tomorrow.