North Korea halts commuters going to Kaesong
PAJU, South Korea - North Korea barred South Korean commuters from crossing the border Wednesday to work at the jointly owned Kaesong Industrial Complex in the latest sign of escalating tensions on the peninsula.
Kaesong was the last remaining symbol of cooperation between the two Koreas and is one of the North’s few sources of foreign currency. Estimates of how much it brings to the reclusive country’s economy range from $250 million to $2 billion per year.
North Korea has issued a series of provocative threats against the U.S. and South Korea in recent weeks. The U.S. has responded with conspicuous shows of force, including sending a pair of B-2 Stealth bombers on a training mission to South Korea and positioning a guided-missile destroyer off the peninsula’s southwestern coast.
Gen. James Thurman, the top U.S. commander in South Korea, called the situation on the peninsula "volatile" and "dangerous," telling ABC News on Tuesday that in his two years on the job, he has never seen things as tense as they are right now.
South Koreans already at the Kaesong factory complex will be allowed to cross the Demilitarized Zone back to the South as scheduled, according to Ministry of Unification spokesperson Park Su-jin, who said the ministry is making the “utmost efforts to protect South Korean nationals.”
Park said North Korea notified the ministry of its intentions Wednesday morning via a private phone line. The North severed most two-way communications at the Demilitarized Zone and declared that the armistice which ended the Korean War was invalid.
Three or four workers returned to South Korea by noon without incident, Park said, and another 46 were scheduled to return by 5 p.m. Officials in Seoul said 179 workers and 153 vehicles had been barred from entering the facility, but 123 South-owned businesses there were still operating as usual.
At midday on a sunny spring day, approximately three dozen trucks waited at the border to deliver goods to Kaesong. The drivers were outnumbered by reporters covering what had become the biggest story of the day in South Korea.
Pyongyang’s decision to bar employees from the border crossing comes a day after the North -- angered by United Nations sanctions passed in the wake of Pyongyang’s recent satellite launch and nuclear test - announced it would restart its plutonium reactor and increase production of nuclear weapons materials.
While most experts believe North Korea is unlikely to launch a major attack, given the massive retaliation it would face, some other kind of provocation could take place, such as the North’s shelling of a South island in 2011 and sinking of a South Korean naval vessel later the same year.
Thurman said he believes much of Pyongyang’s rhetoric is aimed at bolstering youthful North Korean leader Kim Young Un’s standing with his own people, especially the powerful military, and that the situation is likely to cool off. But he told ABC his greatest fear is a "miscalculation" that causes "a kinetic provocation," a reference to combat.
Chung Kyung-young, a military science professor at Seokyeong University, said Wednesday’s “particularly stubborn action” by the North had created a “very serious” security situation on the peninsula.
“North Korea will not attempt to take further aggressive action, but these actions might be its last card,” he said. “The primary intent for North Korean leadership is to get a chance at bilateral negotiations with the United States.
“If the United States does not show any positive sentiment towards North Korea, then North Korea might take another provocative action,” he said. “This is a very critical point.”
North Korea has threatened to close the facility on occasion since it opened in 2004 when relations with the South have soured.
Hundreds of South Korean workers were stranded at the complex’s housing facilities for days in 2009 when the North closed the border in protest of joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises.
Nearly 1,000 South Koreans travel three miles north of the heavily guarded border each week to work with more than 53,000 North Koreans, who provide cheap labor at Kaesong.