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Seoul to pull out of Gaeseong park

 South Korea on Wednesday announced the closure of a joint factory park in North Korea in fresh retribution for its wayward neighbor’s latest nuclear and missile provocations.

After serving more than a decade as a totem of inter-Korean rapprochement, the Gaeseong industrial complex now appears in danger of fading into history, unless Pyongyang caters to faint hopes that it will change course and desert its nuclear program.

“Facing away from the international community’s repeated warnings and the lives of its suffering people, North Korea pushed ahead with extreme provocations of a long-range missile following a nuclear test. … It is an act that cannot be condoned,” Unification Minister Hong Yong-pyo said at a news conference.

“The government has decided to fully halt the Gaeseong industrial park to block its proceeds from being channeled into North Korea’s nuclear and missile development, and our businesses from being sacrificed.”

Hong’s remarks reflect persistent concerns that the regime continues to siphon off earnings from the business district into its weapons of mass destruction programs, instead of feeding its downtrodden people and shoring up the crumbling economy.
The road leading to the inter-Korean Gaeseong Industrial Complex on Tongil Bridge in Paju, Gyeonggi Province, close to the Demilitarized Zone, appears empty during the Lunar New Year holiday on Wednesday. (Yonhap)
The road leading to the inter-Korean Gaeseong Industrial Complex on Tongil Bridge in Paju, Gyeonggi Province, close to the Demilitarized Zone, appears empty during the Lunar New Year holiday on Wednesday. (Yonhap)

Since the factory park’s inception in 2004, South Korean cash totaling 616 billion won ($514.4 million) has been brought into the North via the border town, nearly 20 percent of which was done over the last year alone, the minister noted. That added to the 1.19 trillion won in public-private investment in infrastructure, operation and other administrative expenses.

“(The funds) appear to have been spent to advance the North’s atomic weapons and long-range missiles,” Hong said. “This is an act of mercilessly trampling the efforts of our government and the 124 resident firms and threatening the lives and safety of our citizens.” 

The surprise declaration came three days after Pyongyang successfully launched a long-range missile, highlighting its evolving nuclear threats coupled with its fourth underground explosion just one month ago.

The latest event has apparently incurred the wrath of President Park Geun-hye, who has repeatedly issued stern warnings, and thus brought about a sweeping turnaround in Seoul’s position given that the ministry had ruled out the possibility of a shutdown until the missile test.

Citing the current sanctions push at the U.N. Security Council over the nuclear test, South Korea’s “active” role is pivotal as a key stakeholder, Hong noted, adding that Pyongyang’s ambitions may culminate in a “nuclear domino” in the region. 

The Unification Ministry did not elaborate on the conditions for a reopening, saying “now is not the time” for such a discussion.

“The face of the business district entirely hinges on North Korea,” the ministry said in a statement. “It must address the concerns of ours and the international community on its nuclear and missile development, and create the environment for a normal operation of the Gaeseong complex.”

Lying just north of the heavily fortified border, the complex has been a symbol of cross-border reconciliation, weathering political turbulence and a series of armed clashes. The 124 companies run factories and employ some 54,000 North Koreans.

The district suffered a four-month freeze in 2013 as Pyongyang abruptly barred the entry of South Koreans and pulled out its 53,000 workers in apparent fury over U.N. sanctions over its February third nuclear test and Seoul-Washington military drills.

The sides agreed to resume its operation through marathon talks but the North has since kept little of its promises to improve passage, communications and customs as part of the “future-oriented normalization” measures.

Frustrated by the communist state’s increasing threats and past fence-mending attempts, the Park administration is forecast to further harden its line, with “sanctions diplomacy,” “omnidirectional, all-out” defense readiness and “reestablishment” of cross-border ties being the main feature of its foreign and security policy this year.

But the latest step to do with Gaeseong has been met with mixed responses, with businessmen and the opposition camp churning out criticism for what they called the government’s unilateral, hasty decision-making. Others also expressed concerns about the safety of the 184 South Koreans still staying in the area, saying the measure could have been taken after all of them exited.

“We request for a reconsideration of the decision,” said Chung Ki-sub, head of the business association after a meeting with Hong earlier in the day. “We want to make clear that the businesses’ losses should not be restored in any way.”

By Shin Hyon-hee (