Seoul pulls workers out of North Korea factory complex, ending cooperative experiment

The last tangible thread of cooperation between Pyongyang and Seoul was cut today, with South Korea announcing it would pull the remaining workers from a sprawling factory complex in the North.

Ahn Young-joon/AP
A South Korean military vehicle crosses Unification bridge, which leads to the demilitarized zone separating North Korea from South Korea near the border village of Panmunjom in Paju, South Korea, Friday. Pyongyang rejected Seoul's request for talks about the Kaesong industrial park, where operations have been suspended for nearly a month as a result of heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

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The last symbol of cooperation between North and South Korea may be in jeopardy after Seoul announced today that it is withdrawing its workers from a jointly-run factory complex just across the border.

Pyongyang rejected Seoul's request for talks about the Kaesong industrial park, where operations have been suspended for nearly a month as a result of heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula. About 175 South Koreans workers were left stranded inside the economic zone in North Korea, when the North closed the border and then recalled its own workers. 

Seoul said it established today as its deadline for a response on the possibility of talks because it is concerned about access to food and medicine for its citizens still at the complex, Associated Press reports. 

"We've made the inevitable decision to bring back all the remaining personnel in Kaesong for the protection of our people as their difficulties continue to grow," South Korea's Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae said in a televised statement. 

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 visited the complex in 2006.)

The Christian Science Monitor reported on April 8, five days after the complex was closed to new workers from the South, that 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'."

North Korea's National Defense Commission said Seoul's offer of talks on Kaesong was "deceptive," citing recent US-South Korea military drills as proof that the South did not truly desire reconciliation. It promised to keep South Korean workers safe during the withdrawal, but warned that was contingent on the South not taking any antagonistic steps until its citizens were back on the southern side of the border, AP reports.

"If the South's puppet group looks away from reality and pursues the worsening of the situation, we will be compelled to first take final and decisive grave measures," the statement said.

According to Agence France-Presse, some Korea experts say it's no longer "realistic" to consider dialogue an option "given that North Korea is as committed to its demand for recognition as a nuclear power as the United States is to refusing it."

With three nuclear tests under its belt, these experts argue, North Korea is no longer the country that negotiated a 1994 nuclear deal with the US or reached a 2005 denuclearisation accord under the six-party talks framework.

Daniel Pinkston, a North Korea expert with the International Crisis Group, believes the current diplomatic thinking on North Korea labours under the illusion that Pyongyang has a fallback, compromise position.

In reality, Pinkston argues, the North's "military-first" policy, maintained by its new young leader Kim Jong-Un, means the regime's legitimacy rests on a perception of strength, making it impossible for it to back down.

"It just isn't going to go anywhere," Pinkston told AFP.

"It's a bit like being infatuated with someone who can't stand you. You're desperately searching and prodding to find something you share in common, but there's nothing there."

Victor Cha of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Siegfried Hecker, an American nuclear scientist and leading expert on the North's nuclear program, both also told AFP that the North has clearly indicated that giving up its nuclear program is not an option. 

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