North Korea Bars South Korean Workers From Industrial Park

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(CNN) — North Korea on Wednesday stirred up fresh unease in Northeast Asia, blocking hundreds of South Korean workers from entering a joint industrial complex that serves as an important symbol of cooperation between the two countries.

The move comes a day after Pyongyang announced plans to restart a nuclear reactor it shut down five years ago and follows weeks of bombastic threats against the United States and South Korea from the North’s young leader, Kim Jong Un, and his government.

The fiery North Korean rhetoric, fueled by recent U.N. sanctions over its latest nuclear test, has created a tense atmosphere on the Korean Peninsula just as the United States and South Korea are engaged in joint military exercises in South Korean territory.

Pyongyang’s threat last month of a possible pre-emptive nuclear strike on the United States and South Korea caused particular alarm, despite heavy skepticism from analysts and U.S. officials that the North Korean military is anywhere near capable of carrying out such an attack.

The United States has in turn made a show of its military strength in the annual drills, flying B-2 stealth bombers capable of carrying conventional or nuclear weapons, Cold War-era B-52s and F-22 Raptor stealth fighters over South Korea.

North Korea’s decision Wednesday to prevent workers from entering the Kaesong Industrial Complex, which sits on the North’s side of the border but houses operations of scores of South Korean companies, is a tangible sign of the tensions between the two sides.

It’s also a move that could end up hurting Pyongyang financially, since Kaesong is considered to be an important source of hard currency for North Korean authorities.

The North had threatened at the weekend to shut down the industrial complex.

A ‘cash cow’

“We are highly skeptical that they will close this cash cow, as some recent reports have suggested,” Stephan Haggard, professor at the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies at the University of California, San Diego, wrote in an article published Monday.

“But if they did, the costs would be higher for the North than for the South,” Haggard wrote in the article for the Peterson Institute for International Economics, a Washington-based research organization.

Seoul said it “deeply regrets” the North’s decision to stop workers from entering Kaesong.

“North Korea’s action creates a barrier to the stable operation” of the complex, the South Korean Unification Ministry said in a statement, urging its neighbor to “immediately normalize” the entry and exit process.

The North has blocked the crossing into Kaesong before.

In March 2009, also during joint U.S.-South Korean military drills that it said were a threat, Pyongyang shut the border, temporarily trapping hundreds of South Korean workers in the industrial complex.

It allowed many of the stranded workers to return to South Korea the next day, and fully reopened the border about a week later without explaining its reversal.

Hundreds of workers

It was unclear Wednesday whether the latest drama over Kaesong would play out in similar fashion.

At the star of the day, when the North informed the South that it would prevent new entries to the complex, there were 861 South Korean workers in there, according to the Unification Ministry.

Hundreds of workers rotate in and out of Kaesong each day in a series of scheduled entries and exits. Many of them stay there for several nights.

A total of 484 workers were registered Wednesday to enter the complex, the ministry said, and 446 were registered to leave.

In the late morning exit window, three workers returned to South Korea from Kaesong, far fewer than the 98 registered to leave at that time.

South Korean authorities didn’t immediately provide an explanation for the discrepancy. But during the March 2009 crisis, many South Korean companies with operations in the zone chose to keep more workers there to compensate for those not being allowed in.

Kerry calls North ‘reckless’

U.S. and South Korean officials have kept up their criticism of the North’s actions in recent days.

John Kerry, the U.S. secretary of state, warned Tuesday that the United States will not accept North Korea as a “nuclear state.”

“The bottom line is simply that what Kim Jong Un is choosing to do is provocative. It is dangerous, reckless,” Kerry said during a joint briefing in Washington with South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se.

“And I reiterate again the United States will do what is necessary to defend ourselves and defend our allies, Korea and Japan,” Kerry added. “We are fully prepared and capable of doing so, and I think the DPRK understands that.”

DPRK is short for Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the official name for North Korea.

The North has said that its nuclear weapons, which it describes as a deterrent, are no longer up for negotiation.

Kerry’s comments came hours after Pyongyang’s declaration that it would restart the reactor at its Yongbyon nuclear complex.

The statement demonstrated Kim’s commitment to the North’s nuclear weapons program that the international community has tried to persuade it to abandon.

Crisis has ‘gone too far’

The North Korean announcement was followed by a plea for calm from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who is South Korean.

“The current crisis has already gone too far,” he said in a statement from Andorra. “Nuclear threats are not a game. Aggressive rhetoric and military posturing only result in counteractions, and fuel fear and instability.

“Things must begin to calm down, as this situation, made worse by the lack of communication, could lead down a path that nobody should want to follow.”

During the saber-rattling of the past few weeks, Pyongyang has severed a key military hot line with Seoul and declared void the 1953 armistice that stopped the Korean War.

This week, the United States positioned two warships and a sea-based radar platform near the Korean Peninsula to monitor North Korean military moves, defense officials said.

Seoul, meanwhile, on Monday warned that any provocative moves from North Korea would trigger a strong response “without any political considerations.”