The diplomatic crisis on the Korean peninsula has deepened after North Korea this week barred South Korean workers from entering a jointly run industrial complex just inside the North’s border.
China, meanwhile, voiced “serious concern” about rising tensions in the region, a day after North Korea said it would resume operations to produce weapons-grade plutonium.
The Kaesong industrial complex, located about 10km north of the heavily fortified border that has separated the two countries for the past six decades, is viewed as the last remaining symbol of inter-Korean co-operation.
There was no suggestion, however, that hundreds of South Koreans already inside the complex when the ban was imposed were being held hostage.
The North has disrupted operations there before, but the move on Wednesday caused particular concern as South Korea and the United States attempt to respond to a catalogue of provocations by the regime in Pyongyang.
In recent weeks North Korea has threatened a nuclear attack on the US and its overseas bases, which is a hollow threat, experts say, given the regime’s relatively primitive nuclear and missile technology. It has also declared a “state of war” with South Korea.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hong Lei told reporters in Beijing that the country’s deputy foreign minister, Zhang Yesui, had expressed “serious concern” over the crisis in a meeting with ambassadors from the US and South Korea.
“In the present situation, China believes all sides must remain calm and exercise restraint and not take actions which are mutually provocative, and must certainly not take actions which will worsen the situation,” he said.
China is the North’s only remaining ally and its biggest aid donor. The fact that China has described the situation in such bleak terms is being interpreted as a sign of growing frustration in Beijing with the unpredictable behaviour of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
Experts had warned that any disruption to Kaesong, which draws on investment from more than 100 South Korean firms and employs workers from both countries, would signal a swift deterioration in an already tense situation on the peninsula.
The unification ministry in Seoul said about 480 South Korean managers who had planned to travel to Kaesong on Wednesday morning had been prevented from crossing into the North.
“South Korea’s government deeply regrets the entry ban and urges that it be lifted immediately,” ministry spokesperson Kim Hyung-seok said.
“Ensuring the safety of our citizens is our top priority, and the South Korean government will take necessary measures based on this principle.”
Of the South Korean workers who had stayed in Kaesong the previous night, three had returned by mid-afternoon local time, with about 800 more expected to follow. The unification ministry later said 46 workers would return by early evening, while the remainder would stay in Kaesong, according to the Yonhap news agency.
South Korea’s Defence Minister Kim Kwan-jin said he would do everything possible to ensure the safety of workers who remained inside the zone. Those contingencies reportedly include “military action” as a last resort.
Since it started producing goods in 2004, Kaesong has endured as a rare example of cross-border co-operation. It is also an important source of hard currency for the North, earning the impoverished state an estimated $2-billion a year in trade.
About 120 South Korean firms run factories in the border town, paying more than $80-million a year in wages to the workforce, which includes 53 000 North Koreans.
It was not clear how long the ban on workers from the South would last – permission from North Korea for employees to cross the border into its territory is granted daily. Kaesong has been the victim of diplomatic spats before, and it closed briefly in March 2009 during US-South Korea military exercises.
But an extended ban would, in effect, lead to the closure of Kaesong, as it cannot operate without raw materials trucked in from the South.
At a border checkpoint with the North, Joe In-suk, a 54-year-old South Korean who had planned to travel to Kaesong on Wednesday, said: “I feel worried that I’m unable to do business and also feel anxious.”
Analysts say that the Kaesong ban is the latest in a series of moves by North Korea designed to raise fears of conflict in the hope of drawing diplomatic concessions out of Seoul and Washington, which include an end to sanctions, promises of aid, and a peace treaty with the US.
“It appears to be a temporary measure intended to raise tensions with the South, having declared it is entering a state of war and having been ridiculed for keeping Kaesong open for financial reasons,” Cheong Seong-chang of the Sejong Institute think-tank in Seoul said.
“At least until the end of April, when the [South Korea-US] military drills end, the North is likely to keep up the tensions as it had done in previous years. The message is it is capable of dealing a major blow to Kaesong,” he said.
The North began the latest round of provocations early last month in a protest against fresh UN sanctions after its third nuclear weapons test in February. The North also claims it has been provoked by the huge show of US military firepower in the region during continuing war games with South Korean forces.
Seoul and Washington say the annual drills are purely defensive, but Pyongyang says it regards them as a prelude to an invasion. – © Guardian News & Media 2013