Symbol of Korean co-operation on hiatus

BEIJING — The Globe and Mail

North Koreans walk bicycles along a street in the residential district of Kaesong, North Korea, north of the demilitarized zone which separates the two Koreas, Tuesday, April 23, 2013. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder) (David Guttenfelder/AP)

For a decade, the Kaesong Industrial Park was a lonely symbol of inter-Korean co-operation, proof that North and South Korea could work together despite their angry history and deep ideological divide.

But symbolizing how serious the crisis on the peninsula has become, South Korea announced it was withdrawing its 175 remaining nationals from the industrial zone, which sits on the northern side of the border.

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The move is a signal from South Korean President Park Geun-hye that she wants North Korea to pay a price for its recent belligerence. Ms. Park, the daughter of South Korea’s Cold War dictator, has thus far refused to blink in the two-month-old standoff with Kim Jong-un, the grandson of North Korea’s founding leader.

On Friday, Ms. Park told her cabinet that she had no intention of “waiting forever” for North Korea to allow work to resume at Kaesong, which has been shuttered for three weeks amid threats of war. Her tone echoed that of U.S. President Barack Obama, who recently warned the 30-year-old Mr. Kim that, “You don’t get to bang your spoon on the table and somehow you get your way.”

The South Koreans in Kaesong are managers at the factories there, which until last month employed some 53,000 North Korean workers, their wages providing a rare source of hard currency to Mr. Kim’s regime. Now the question becomes whether North Korea will let the managers leave.

For the past 20 years, Korean crises have followed a set pattern. Pyongyang, feigning outrage over some perceived slight, threatens war. Seoul and Washington talk tough, then agree to negotiate. This crisis appears dangerously different, with the United States recently offering dialogue only if North Korea first agreed to give up its nuclear weapons.

Predictably, Pyongyang, which has called its nuclear weapons the “life of the nation,” refused the terms and declared war to be inevitable.

North Korea withdrew its own workers from Kaesong on April 8. While many of the statements coming from Pyongyang are regarded as bluster, its decision to forgo at least part of the $90-million in annual income it received from Kaesong was a sharp signal that the current showdown is regarded as very serious within North Korea.

The South Korean managers had remained behind in order to protect and preserve the factories for the day when the crisis was over and normal operation could resume. Seoul’s decision to withdraw the managers pushes that day further off into the distance, and removes one of the few remaining leashes on the two growling militaries.

“It’s North Korea that disrupted operations there – South Korea would have just as soon kept things humming along, and the South Korean workers have been sitting there basically in limbo for most of April,” said Hans Schattle, who teaches political science at Yonsei University in Seoul. “This could be the end for the industrial zone,” he said, though it is just as likely the park will reopen whenever the crisis passes.

That moment seems far off. The past two months have already seen North Korea detonate a nuclear device, its third, and declare that the 1953 armistice that ended the Korean War was null and void.

Pyongyang, which has also severed telephone lines that connected the two armies across the Demilitarized Zone, says it is being “provoked” by United Nations sanctions and ongoing war games by the United States and South Korea that North Korea says are practice for an invasion.

In announcing the decision to withdraw South Korean nationals from Kaesong, Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae said it was “for the protection of our people as their difficulties continue to grow.” In recent weeks, North Korea blocked attempts to deliver food and medicines to the managers who remained in Kaesong.

Seoul had set a Friday deadline for negotiations to begin regarding the future of Kaesong, warning it would otherwise have to take serious measures.

North Korea’s National Defence Commission let the deadline pass, warning that “Pyongyang will be the first to take tough and conclusive action if the South insists on worsening the situation at the border town. … Making ultimatums against [North Korea] and warning of serious consequences will only lead to final destruction [for the South.]”

No timeline was given for the withdrawal of the South Korean managers. An association of South Korean businesses with factories in Kaesong released a statement saying they were shocked at Seoul’s decision to pull the managers out.

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