North Korea suspends last major project with South Korea

North Korea's decision to pull its workers from Kaesong industrial park coincides with speculation that it could carry out a missile test.

Lee Jin-man/AP
South Koreans wait for a chance to enter the North Korean city of Kaesong at the customs, immigration and quarantine office near the border village of Panmunjom, which has separated the two Koreas since the Korean War, in Paju, north of Seoul, South Korea, Monday, April 8, 2013.

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Pyongyang announced it is withdrawing its workers from the Kaesong industrial complex, the joint North-South Korean manufacturing venture that has become something of a bellwether of North Korea's intentions amid its increased belligerent threats.

Reuters reports that the decision by the North to suspend its last major symbol of cooperation with the South came down Monday, amid growing concerns that Pyongyang is preparing some sort of provocation, possibly a missile or nuclear test.

"[The North] will temporarily suspend the operations in the zone and examine the issue of whether it will allow its (continued) existence or close it," KCNA quoted Kim Yang Gon, secretary of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea, as saying.

KCNA said leaders in South Korea, a major U.S. ally, were "running the whole gamut of intrigues to find a pretext for igniting a war against (North Korea) after reducing the Kaesong Industrial zone to a theatre of confrontation".

Reuters notes that the suspension follows North Korea's move last week to bar new arrivals from South Korea from entering Kaesong, although it did not expel Southerners already there. However, many South Koreans left the site and returned home as food and supplies there ran out.

The Kaesong complex is seen as a critical lifeline for the North. Amid the waxing Kaesong shutdown last week, The Christian Science Monitor reported that the site employs some 53,000 North Koreans in factories manufacturing goods for South Korean companies, whose managers are allowed into the site. The complex produced $470 million in good last year and drew an estimates $80 million for North Korea – a significant influx of money for a regime beset by UN-backed sanctions and with almost no legitimate sources of income other than its limited trade with China.

The Associated Press notes that even with Pyongyang's statement, the status of Kaesong's South Korean managers remains uncertain. One South Korean manager told AP that he had heard nothing about the suspension, and although the North had asked South Koreans to report by Wednesday when they plan to leave the site, no orders to leave had been issued.

"North Korean workers left work at 6 o'clock today as they usually do. We'll know tomorrow whether they will come to work," said the manager, who declined to be identified because he was not allowed to speak to media.

Cho Han-Bum, an analyst at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul, told Agence France-Presse that while Kaesong's closure was "politically... a very dangerous decision to make for the North," he sees the move as typical North Korean brinksmanship.

"I still don't believe that the North is genuinely serious about shutting Kaesong permanently. By saying its future depends on the behaviour of South Korea, it's leaving room open for negotiation," he said.

The Kaesong decision comes amid speculation in the West that North Korea is planning a missile launch or other provocative move. The weekend saw reports that the North was moving missiles toward its east coast, likely for a missile test of some kind. And South Korea notes that Pyongyang is ready to conduct a nuclear test at short notice, although Seoul on Monday was forced to clarify a minister's apparent misstatement that such a test was "imminent."

AP reports that the Unification Ministry said that Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae misspoke when he said during a parliamentary session on Monday that there was an "indication" of preparations for a nuclear test. Though North Korea has long been ready for a test, a ministry official said, Mr. Ryoo did not mean to imply that there had been any sign of increased activity that way at present.

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