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North lets stranded workers go back home

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Mar 17,2009
North Korea allowed South Koreans to come home yesterday from the Kaesong Industrial Complex, three days after shutting the border without any explanation. But northbound travel remained closed yesterday.

South Korea’s Unification Ministry announced that at 9:20 a.m. yesterday, the North delivered a document to permit the South Koreans to go home.

There were 233 South Koreans scheduled to make the southward trip on Friday, when the North closed the border, and 193 more on Saturday. There are no cross-border trips on Sundays.

Overall, 453 South Koreans were scheduled to come south yesterday, but according to the Unification Ministry, 159 of them elected to remain in the North. The ministry said they stayed put to help with their factories since they wouldn’t be allowed back to the North immediately.

The ministry said the North offered no explanation as to why the border remained closed for northward trips from the South. There were 655 South Koreans scheduled to go north yesterday.

Representatives of South Korean businesses in Kaesong issued a statement yesterday demanding the North normalize the border crossing.

“Because of the North’s closure of the border, the supply channel for raw materials and supplies has been severed,” the statement read. “We demand the North guarantee safe travel and our business activities.”

South Korea’s major political parties continued to voice their displeasure yesterday, with both conservative and the liberal sides condemning the North’s action.

But six conservative activist groups, including Fighters for Free North Korea, issued a joint statement urging the South’s government to “scrap all inter-Korean cooperation projects that can’t ensure people’s safety.”

“Without proper safety measures, working in a Kaesong business could threaten the lives of the South Koreans [working there],” the statement read. “The North is holding South Koreans hostage, but our government has been helpless and has only given us empty words.”

Restrictions at the border are part of a recent run of North Korean moves that have raised tensions on the peninsula, as inter-Korean relations have soured under the Lee Myung-bak administration.

Last Friday, the North closed the border for the second time in five days, in the midst of the annual 12-day South Korea?U.S. joint military drills. North Korea considers the drills provocation for war, while Seoul and Washington say the operations are defensive in
nature.

The North has also announced plans to launch a communications satellite next month, though the South suspects a ballistic missile is the more likely projectile.

Jung Chang-hyun, a professor of North Korean studies at Kookmin University, said South Koreans have been sent home because the North “has little to gain by holding them back and by making it seem as though they’re turning this into a hostage situation.”

The professor added that recent incidents at the border are a sign that the North takes the Korea?U.S. military drills, known as Key Resolve and Foal Eagle, seriously.

“Perhaps it’s something we South Koreans may have a hard time understanding,” Jung said. “But with inter-Korean relations chillier than in the past, the North has become extra sensitive to the drills.”

The professor predicted cross-border travel will return to normal after the military exercise ends this Friday. But Kim Yong-hyun, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University, said the North’s current strategy could backfire.


By Yoo Jee-ho Staff Reporter [jeeho@joongang.co.kr]



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