SEOUL, South Korea — South Korean workers began to return to Seoul Saturday from an industrial park jointly run with North Korea.
About 11 of the 175 South Koreans at the Kaesong industrial zone have come back, while 115 are expected later in the day, after an agreement was reached with North Korean officials on the logistics of the pullout, according to a text message from the Unification Ministry. The remainder are expected to return by Monday.
South Korea’s President Park Geun Hye made the “inevitable” decision to pull her citizens from Kaesong, which shut down more than two weeks ago, Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl Jae told reporters yesterday in Seoul. North Korea ignored a deadline to accept an offer for talks on re-opening the facility.
The Korean peninsula has been on edge since February, when Kim Jong Un’s regime detonated an atomic bomb in defiance of United Nations sanctions and then threatened preemptive nuclear strikes against its enemies. The North on April 8 recalled its workers from Kaesong, the last point of inter-Korean exchange and an important cash source for the impoverished nation.
North Korea’s National Defense Commission threatened “final, decisive and serious measures” against the South’s “ultimatums,” according to a statement on the official Korean Central News Agency. The South should withdraw its citizens from Kaesong if it’s concerned about their well-being, KCNA said.
The complex, about 6 miles north of the demilitarized zone between the two countries, employs more than 53,000 North Koreans at 123 South Korean companies. North Korea generates $100 million in annual profits there, while South Korea makes quadruple that amount, according to Yang Moo Jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.
North Korea on April 3 blocked South Koreans’ access to the complex, only allowing them to leave. With all traffic from the South into Kaesong banned, the South Koreans have had to endure a shortage of food and medical resources. One citizen returned to Seoul April 25 after suddenly falling ill, the Unification Ministry said.
With the U.S. and South Korea calling on North Korea to return to negotiations, Park’s options to pressure Kim are “very limited,” said Kim Young Yoon, a research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul.
South Korean companies operating in Kaesong have urged the government to break the impasse and seek damages from the loss of operations. The association representing them today called for talks between the two sides for “normalization” of the complex.
The South Korean government should provide compensation to help the companies revive their businesses and allow workers to revisit the complex on April 30, the association said in an e- mailed statement.
The Export-Import Bank of Korea revived its pledge to expand financial aid to companies running plants in the complex, the state-run lender said in an e-mailed statement today, without giving details. The bank has provided 300 billion won — about $270 million of aid — including lower lending rates and higher ceilings on loans, it said.
Kim, who took over as leader in December 2011 following the death of his father Kim Jong Il, has rebuffed international inducements to abandon nuclear weapons development. The Obama administration has rejected claims North Korea possesses the ability to launch nuclear-armed ballistic missiles while warning Kim’s inexperience raises the possibility of errors.
The North is ready to conduct another nuclear test “at any moment,” South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min Seok said April 23. North Korea vowed to strengthen its nuclear program after a U.S. State Department report found the country guilty of “egregious and pervasive” human rights abuses.
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