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N.K. halts Gaeseong operations, says will withdraw its workers

Announcement made after top official’s visit

PAJU, Gyeonggi Province ― North Korea said Monday that it would pull out all of its workers from the inter-Korean industrial complex in its border city of Gaeseong, jeopardizing the last remaining symbol of bilateral economic cooperation.

Kim Yang-gon, the North’s ruling Workers’ Party’s secretary in charge of South Korean affairs, said the communist state would tentatively put operation at the complex on hold and consider whether or not to scrap it.

“How the situation will develop in the future will entirely depend on the South Korean government’s attitude,” he said in a statement carried by the North’s official Korea Central News Agency.

Kim made the comments after he inspected the complex and assigned its officials there “concrete tasks for being fully prepared to deal with any incident,” according to the KCNA. 
The road leading to Gaeseong remains vacant Monday as North Korea blocked South Korean workers and cargo for a sixth consecutive day. (Kim Myung-sub/The Korea Herald)
The road leading to Gaeseong remains vacant Monday as North Korea blocked South Korean workers and cargo for a sixth consecutive day. (Kim Myung-sub/The Korea Herald)

Since last Wednesday, Pyongyang has blocked the entry of South Korean workers and cargo to the complex where some 54,000 North Koreans work for 123 South Korean firms in the labor-intensive industries such as textiles, clothing and electronic parts.

A series of businesses have since been forced to stop their operations because of their lack of production materials, food and other necessities to support workers there.

South Korea expressed regret over the North's decision to withdraw its workers . "North Korea's unilateral decision to push ahead with this measure is unjustifiable in any way and North Korea will be held responsible for all the consequences," the Unification Ministry said in a statement.

During a parliamentary session, Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae said there was no need for negotiations with regard to the complex, claiming that if the North allowed the reentry of South Korean workers to the complex, the situation would simply “return to normalcy.”

“The complex has been in existence for a decade as a symbol of inter-Korean coexistence and peace,” he said. “We should not let it be broken up due to unclear reasons.”

Established in 2003, the Gaeseong complex has been the symbol of inter-Korean reconciliation and the largest inter-Korean economic project to date.

During Kim Yang-gon’s tour to the complex, he called on them to “maintain a tense and mobilized posture,” accusing Seoul and Washington of conspiring to invade the North.

“The fate of the industrial zone is hanging by a thread after the South’s conservative government has forced the situation to get ugly by debasing our dignity through this issue,” Kim was quoted as saying by the KCNA.

The security crisis fueled by Pyongyang’s escalating brinkmanship is wreaking havoc on the 123 small and medium enterprises at Gaeseong.

Earlier in the day, hundreds of vehicles carrying workers, goods and equipment were turned back once again after standing bumper-to-bumper for hours before a checkpoint on the Grand Unification Bridge, which leads to the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas.

Fourteen factories have suspended production so far due to a lack of food and production materials, and power and fuel supplies, according to the ministry.

Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae said another five plants are expected to follow suit within the day.

“I just can’t understand why (North Korea) is pushing a project maintained by former leader Kim Jong-il into an abnormal condition,” Ryoo said at the National Assembly.

“If the situation comes to this project being halted or all our workers completely pulling out, inter-Korean relations will greatly regress.”

Ok Sung-suk, president of clothing firm Nine Mode and vice president of an association of companies running plants in the district, said nearly all remaining factories will be forced to freeze operations until Wednesday.

“Workers bring with them a week’s worth of foodstuffs and other necessities when they go back up to Gaeseong after the weekend. The fact that they failed to enter today means their weeklong food load has run out,” Ok told reporters at the Dorasan Customs, Immigration and Quarantine office in Paju, Gyeonggi Province.

“Though they have been rationing food and sharing with others since last Wednesday, this can hold up for only so long.”

In addition to food, most factories are running short of raw materials and other industrial parts, as well as gas supplies that account for about 15 percent of the district’s energy sources.

The North Korean workers are also having difficulty turning up at work because of a shortage of fuel for buses carrying them to and from Gaeseong.

A number of firms have already reported a reduction or cancellation of orders from their buyers in favor of a more stable contractor, Ok said.

Thirty-nine employees returned throughout the day, bringing down the number of South Koreans there to 475. Most of the remaining workers are company executives and plant managers, he added.

“We stopped operation because we ran out of raw materials. Production workers did not come to work, just managers and office workers,” said a 45-year-old employee of Doosung Tech Co., a chemical firm, upon his arrival at the CIQ office.

“Before I left, North Korean employees and I told each other that we hoped the entry ban would be lifted soon.” 

By Song Sang-ho, Shin Hyon-hee and Lee Sang-ju
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