South Korea has ordered the withdrawal of its workers from a jointly run industrial zone in North Korea, in a further sign of how relations have gone from bad to worse between the two countries in recent weeks.
Earlier this month, Pyongyang blocked access to the Kaesong zone, which is located just inside North Korea and was established in 2002 as a symbol of rapprochement between the rival neighbors. In the past, even as tensions flared, Kaesong — an important source of hard currency for the North and cheap labor for the South — had kept operating.
On Friday, however, Seoul's Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae said the approximately 175 South Korean workers still in the zone after the North's blockade would be returning home after Pyongyang this week declined to resume bilateral talks.
"Because our nationals remaining in the Kaesong industrial zone are experiencing greater difficulties due to the North's unjust actions, the government has come to the unavoidable decision to bring back all remaining personnel in order to protect their safety," Ryoo said.
"North Korea must guarantee the safe return of our personnel and fully protect the assets of the companies with investment in Kaesong," he added without giving a time frame for the withdrawal.
The Washington Post reports:
"South Korea's decision diminishes the already slim odds of the complex's survival and widens a divide between Seoul and Pyongyang that has grown during weeks of back-and-forth threats."
About 120 South Korean companies set up shop in the complex, which employed 53,000 North Koreans, according to The Christian Science Monitor. The endeavor was meant to be a "mutually beneficial arrangement," providing South Korean companies with cheap northern labor and North Koreans with much needed income. North Korea earned about $80 million from the complex last year, which produced $470 million worth of goods.
The Monitor reported earlier this month that five days after Kaesong was closed to new workers from the South, it was already the longest interruption of "in-and-out traffic" at the complex since it opened. The state-run Korean Central News Agency said at the time that South Korea was "trying to 'turn the zone [Kaesong] into a hotbed of war.' "