SEOUL — The only remaining economic link between the two Koreas, already on the edge of falling apart, further frazzled on Friday. South Korea is recommending its remaining citizens at the idled Kaesong industrial complex in the North return home.
The top government official in Seoul charged with handling North-South relations said the time has come for South Koreans remaining at the Kaesong factory zone to return home.
Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae said the government has made an “unavoidable decision” for everyone remaining at the complex to return for their protection because of North Korea’s “unfair measures which created difficulties for South Korean citizens still there.”
Ryoo also is calling for North Korea to ensure the safe passage of the South Koreans out of Kaesong and to protect their equipment and property that will remain at the complex.
South Korea’s president, Park Geun-hye – meeting earlier in the day with her security-related ministers – questioned how much longer they should wait for a resolution to the issue of the idled Kaesong industrial zone.
The president said the prolonged suspension, due to North Korea’s action, is taking a heavy toll on South Korean companies and the people there who have not been able to be resupplied with food and materials since April 3.
Seoul on Thursday had given Pyongyang little more than 24 hours to respond to an offer of official talks on the fate of their joint venture. Otherwise, the government warned, it would take significant measures regarding the complex, located just north of the border.
Two hours after Friday’s deadline passed, Pyongyang rebuffed Seoul’s offer of talks as “fraudulent,” declaring any further ultimatums from South Korean officials will lead to “their final destruction.”
The statement is in the name of a spokesman for the policy department of North Korea’s national defense commission.
The commission is the highest-level state organ whose first chairman is the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un.
An announcer on the central broadcasting station in Pyongyang read the 10-minute long statement, which informed Seoul that if it is so anxious about the safety of the South Koreans remaining at the complex, then it should withdraw them and the North “will take necessary humanitarian measures to guarantee their safety.”
The announcer, also quoting the spokesman, concludes with a warning that if South Korean authorities continue to aggravate the situation, the North will take “final and decisive significant measures” before the South can enact their threatened “significant measures.”
The Kaesong industrial zone is primarily composed of small textile factories, operated by South Koreans.
During normal operations at Kaesong about 800 South Korean managers of more than 120 factories supervised 53,000 North Korean workers.
Officials say 176 South Koreans and one Chinese national remained inside the complex as of Friday afternoon.
The Kaesong project, opened in 2004 during the South’s “Sunshine Policy” of engagement with the North, was hailed as a hallmark of cooperation between the two Koreas, which lack diplomatic relations and have technically remained at war since the early 1950s.
In exchange for cheap labor, the impoverished and isolated North gained a significant source of hard currency from Kaesong. The bulk of the workers’ salaries was retained by the North Korean government.
North Korea, nearly three weeks ago, pulled out its workers from the complex and prohibited fresh supplies to Kaesong from the South.
North Korea said it took the action to protest Seoul using the project to insult Pyongyang’s leadership.
The impasse over Kaesong comes amid sharply rising tension on the Korean peninsula.
North Korea has in recent weeks warned of imminent warfare, contending joint military drills between South Korea and the United States are a prelude to an invasion.
Although North Korea frequently makes such claims when Seoul and Washington conduct their annual war games, this year Pyongyang issued unprecedented and specific warnings, including that it would conduct a preemptive nuclear strike against the United States.
North Korea’s ballistic missile and atomic weapons development, which continues in defiance of U.N. sanctions, is of high concern to the international community. Most defense analysts do not believe Pyongyang yet has the capability to deploy a miniaturized nuclear warhead atop a multi-stage rocket.