SEOUL — After North Korea on Friday rejected formal talks to resolve a standoff at a jointly operated border industrial complex, South Korea said it would call home its remaining workers from the facility, formally severing the last major connection between the two countries.
South Korea’s decision diminishes the already slim odds of the complex’s survival and widens a divide between Seoul and Pyongyang that has grown during weeks of back-and-forth threats.
The Kaesong Industrial Complex had stood as the chief symbol of cooperation between the neighbors after opening in 2004 as a capitalist bubble on the northern side of the border where South Korean companies employed cheap North Korean labor. But the North, earlier this month, barred South Koreans from entering the complex and then pulled out its own 50,000 employees.
Until Friday, South Korea had seemed hopeful that the facility might soon resume normal operations. More than 800 South Koreans had been inside Kaesong when the North’s barricade was put into effect, and 175 of them elected to stay — a grim three-week holdout aimed at saving their businesses. But South Korean officials say the North subsequently blocked shipments of food and medical supplies, creating an “urgent” humanitarian problem.
The South Koreans at Kaesong are dealing with “greater difficulties due to the North’s unjust actions,” Ryoo Kihl-jae, Seoul’s unification minister, said Friday in announcing the decision. “The government has come to the unavoidable decision to bring back all remaining personnel in order to protect their safety.”
South Korea’s decision followed a threat issued a day earlier to take unspecified “significant measures” if the North did not accept an offer for working-level talks on Kaesong by noon Friday. Several hours after the deadline, North Korea rejected the talks in a statement released by its state-run news agency. In particular, the North accused South Korea of adopting a hostile policy toward the ruling Kim family and allowing activists to hold recent anti-North protests.
The North’s statement warned vaguely of a “final decisive and crucial measure” if South Korea continued to provoke it, but the statement also offered some assurances, saying that South Korean workers would be allowed to freely leave Kaesong if they chose.
The North will “responsibly take all the humanitarian measures including the provision of guarantee for their personal safety that may arise in the course of the withdrawal,” the statement said, attributed to the National Defense Commission, a top decision-making body.
At Kaesong, 123 small- and medium-size South Korean companies had employed virtually an entire town of North Koreans, paying them between $2 and $3 per day.
When Kaesong was conceived, South Korean officials hoped it would not only spur wider North-South cooperation but also push the communist government in Pyongyang to accept broader forms of capitalism in its tightly controlled economy. The facility failed to transform the North — but it did generate an estimated $80 million annually for the country’s leaders, who collected a bulk of their workers’ salaries.
So far, neither North nor South Korea has publicly given up hope about reviving Kaesong. The North says its barricade is “temporary.”
On Friday, during a meeting with foreign affairs and security ministers, South Korean President Park Geun-hye said she preferred to resume normal operations at the facility. But she also did not want to “wait endlessly” to have talks with the North to resolve the situation, according to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency.