Although North Korea barred South Koreans from the Kaesong plant this past Wednesday, few analysts suspected that Pyongyang would shutter the plant — which generates foreign currency for the authoritarian government — even temporarily.
North Korea might eventually reopen the facility, six miles north of the demilitarized border. But South Korean businesses could be wary about returning to an area that Pyongyang has described as a “theater of confrontation” — one that operates on the political whims of its leadership.
At least once before, in 2009, the North barricaded the plant for several days. But the decision Monday marked a new step and underscored unease as officials throughout Asia and in Washington try to predict — and prepare for — what North Korea will do next.
On Monday, South Korea’s unification minister, Ryoo Kihl-jae, told parliament that he had “detected” signs of an upcoming underground nuclear blast at the North’s mountainous test site. But Ryoo, the South’s top official for North Korea policy, later backtracked from his comment, and a South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman said there is no indication that a nuclear test is imminent.
The contradictory assessments came after a major South Korean daily newspaper reported increased personnel and vehicles at the North’s test site. Security analysts cautioned that South Korean assessments of the North are unreliable and said the North could be trying to create a misleading sense of crisis, knowing that foreign nations routinely study satellite images of the test site.
South Korean officials said previously that the North might launch a midrange missile this week. Pyongyang has tried in recent years to build up its nuclear and rocket programs, hoping to reliably produce miniature nuclear bombs that can be mounted on long-range missiles capable of flying halfway around the world. Although the North threatened last month to launch a preemptive nuclear strike against the United States, analysts say it does not have the technical capability to do so.
Still, a South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman said Seoul is on particular guard for some kind of provocation in the next several days. Pyongyang has warned embassies that it cannot ensure their safety beyond Wednesday. And on Monday, North Korea celebrates the symbolically important birthday of its late founder, Kim Il Sung, whom it calls the “eternal president.”
“Based on those facts, we think we have to closely monitor” the coming days, said the spokesman, Kim Min-seok.