N. Korea Refuses to Let S. Koreans Enter Factory

South Korean vehicles return from the North Korean city of Kaesong at the customs, immigration and quarantine office in Paju, South Korea, Wednesday, April 3, 2013. North Korea on Wednesday barred South Korean workers from entering a jointly run factory park just over the heavily armed border in the North, officials in Seoul said.
Associated Press SHARE

By AHN YOUNG-JOON and KIM YONG-HO, Associated Press

PAJU, South Korea (AP) — North Korea on Wednesday barred South Korean workers from entering a jointly run factory park just over the heavily armed border in the North in the latest sign that Pyongyang's warlike stance toward South Korea and the United States is moving from words to action.

The Kaesong move came a day after the North announced it would restart its long-shuttered plutonium reactor and a uranium enrichment plant. Both could produce fuel for nuclear weapons that Pyongyang is developing and has threatened to hurl at the U.S. but which experts don't think it will be able to accomplish for years.

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The North's rising rhetoric over recent weeks has been met by a display of U.S. military strength, including flights of nuclear-capable bombers and stealth jets at the annual South Korean-U.S. military drills that the allies call routine but that North Korea claims are invasion preparations.

The Kaesong industrial park started producing goods in 2004 and has been an unusual point of cooperation in an otherwise hostile relationship between the Koreas, whose three-year war ended in 1953 with an armistice. Its continued operation even through past episodes of high tension has reassured foreign multinationals that another Korean War is unlikely and their investments in prosperous dynamic South Korea are safe.

"The Kaesong factory park has been the last stronghold of detente between the Koreas," said Hong Soon-jik, a North Korea researcher at the Seoul-based Hyundai Research Institute.

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He said tension between the Koreas could escalate further over Kaesong because Seoul may react with its own punitive response and Pyongyang will then hit back with another move.

It is unclear how long North Korea will prevent South Koreans from entering the industrial park, which is located in the North Korean border city of Kaesong and provides jobs for more than 50,000 North Koreans. The last major disruption at the park amid tensions over U.S.-South Korean military drills in 2009 lasted just three days.

Seoul's Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Hyung-suk said Pyongyang was allowing South Koreans to return home from Kaesong. Some 33 workers of about 860 South Koreans at Kaesong returned Wednesday. But Kim said about 480 South Koreans who had planned to travel to the park Wednesday were being refused entry.

Trucks streamed back into South Korea through its Paju border checkpoint in the morning, just minutes after heading through it, after being refused entry into the North.

Pyongyang threatened last week to shut down the park, which is run with North Korean labor and South Korean know-how. It expressed anger over South Korean media reports that said North Korea hadn't yet shut the park because it is a source of crucial hard currency for the impoverished country.

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About 120 South Korean companies operate factories in Kaesong which produced $470 million of goods such as clocks, clothing and shoes last year that are trucked back to the South for export to other countries. The industrial park is crucial for the small businesses that operate there to take advantage of North Korea's low wages but not important for the South Korean economy overall.

It has more significance to cash-strapped North Korea since, according to the South Korean government, wages for North Korean workers totaled some $81 million last year. That has underlined the risks that North Korea's brinkmanship will result in a miscalculation that results in an even more dangerous polarization of the Korean peninsula.

Barring entry to South Koreas is a "slap in the face" after the South Korean government recently extended medical aid to the North, said Lee Choon-kun, a North Korea researcher at the Korea Economic Research Institute, a Seoul-based think tank. "I see this as a start for more provocative actions," he said.