Justin McCurry “China voices fears as South Korean workers are barred from Kaesong” http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/apr/03/china-north-korea-kaesong
The diplomatic crisis on the Korean peninsula has deepened after North Korea barred South Korean workers from entering a jointly run industrial complex just north of the countries' border.
China, meanwhile, voiced "serious concern" about rising tensions in the region, a day after North Korea said it would resume operations to produce weapons-grade plutonium*2.
The Kaesong industrial complex, located six miles north of the heavily fortified border that has separated the two countries for the past six decades, is viewed as the last remaining symbol of inter-Korean co-operation.
The North has disrupted operations there before, but Wednesday's move is causing particular concern as South Korea and the US attempt to respond to a catalogue of provocations by the regime in Pyongyang.
There was no suggestion, however, that hundreds of South Koreans already inside the complex when the ban was imposed were being held hostage.
Experts had warned that any disruption to Kaesong, which draws on investment from more than 100 South Korean firms and employs workers from both countries, would signal a swift deterioration in an already tense situation on the peninsula.
The unification ministry in Seoul said about 480 South Korean managers who had planned to travel to Kaesong on Wednesday morning had been prevented from crossing into the North.
"South Korea's government deeply regrets the entry ban and urges that it be lifted immediately," the ministry spokesman Kim Hyung-seok told reporters. "Ensuring the safety of our citizens is our top priority and the South Korean government will take necessary measures based on this principle."
Of the South Korean workers who had stayed in Kaesong the previous night, three had returned by mid-afternoon local time, with about 800 more expected to follow. The unification ministry later said 46 workers would return by early evening, while the remainder would stay in Kaesong, according to the Yonhap news agency.
The country's defence minister, Kim Kwan-jin, said he would do everything possible to ensure the safety of workers who remained inside the zone. Those contingencies reportedly include "military action" as a last resort.
Since it started producing goods in 2004, Kaesong has endured as a rare example of cross-border co-operation. It is also an important source of hard currency for the North, earning the impoverished state an estimated $2bn (£1.3bn) a year in trade.
About 120 South Korean firms run factories in the border town, paying more than $80m (£53m) a year in wages to the workforce, which includes 53,000 North Koreans.
It was not clear how long the ban on workers from the South would last; permission from North Korea for employees to cross the border into its territory is granted on a daily basis. Kaesong has been the victim of diplomatic spats before, having closed briefly in March 2009 during US-South-Korea military exercises.
But an extended ban would in effect lead to the closure of Kaesong, as it cannot operate without raw materials trucked in from the South.
"I feel worried that I'm unable to do business and also feel anxious," Joe In-suk, a 54-year-old South Korean who had planned to travel to Kaesong on Wednesday, told Associated Press at a border checkpoint.
Analysts say the Kaesong ban is the latest in a series of moves by North Korea designed to raise fears of conflict in the hope of prizing diplomatic concessions out of Seoul and Washington, including an end to economic sanctions, promises of aid, and a peace treaty with the US.
"It appears to be a temporary measure intended to raise tensions with the South, having declared it is entering a state of war and having been ridiculed for keeping Kaesong open for financial reasons," Cheong Seong-chang of the Sejong Institute*3 thinktank in Seoul told Reuters.
"At least until the end of April, when the [South-Korea-US] military drills end, the North is likely to keep up the tensions as it had done in previous years. The message is it is capable of dealing a major blow to Kaesong."
*1:Aidan Foster-Carter “Kim Jong-un doesn't appear to know what he's looking for” http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/mar/08/north-korea-nuclear-threat-unknown-quantity Mentioned in http://d.hatena.ne.jp/sumita-m/20130310/1362937283
*3:http://www.sejong.org/ See also http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sejong_Institute
*4:“Could a Korean Armageddon really happen?” http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/mar/29/could-north-korean-armageddon-happen