8 Kaesong staff ejected by North

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8 Kaesong staff ejected by North

Ratcheting up tension on the already edgy Korean Peninsula, North Korea yesterday expelled eight South Korean officials from the joint industrial base in Kaesong and cut off a border hot line and maritime communications with South Korea. The moves followed the North’s declaration late Tuesday that it will sever all relations with South Korea and won’t engage in any inter-Korean exchanges during the term of President Lee Myung-bak.

North Korea also threatened yesterday to block South Korean officials and vehicles from entering what it described as an inter-Korean zone on the west coast - an apparent reference to the Kaesong Industrial Complex - if the South resumed propaganda broadcasts at the border.

The officials expelled from Kaesong, who worked at the Consultative Office for South-North Economic Cooperation, returned home around 1:40 p.m. yesterday. The last time North Korea ejected officials from Kaesong was in December 2008, when Pyongyang reduced the number of South Koreans permitted to visit per day.

But South Korea said yesterday it would continue with its retaliations for the sinking of the Navy patrol ship Cheonan in March. The military planned to begin spreading propaganda leaflets yesterday.

The North’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland issued a statement late Tuesday to respond to South Korea’s moves. The committee warned that it would sever all communication lines with Seoul, including the Red Cross liaison channel at Panmunjom, expel South Korean officials in Kaesong and prohibit South Korean vessels and planes from traveling through the North’s territorial waters and skies. On Monday, South Korea said its waters would be closed to North Korean ships, effective immediately.

“The Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea formally declares that from now on it will put into force the resolute measures to totally freeze the inter-Korean relations, totally abrogate the agreement on nonaggression between the North and the South and completely halt inter-Korean cooperation,” the statement read. “All the issues arising in inter-Korean relations will be handled under a wartime law.

“The DPRK [North Korea] had already solemnly declared that it would regard the South’s anti-DPRK smear campaign over the sinking of the warship as a declaration of a war against the DPRK and mete out a merciless and strong punishment if the group dares defile its dignity,” the statement added.

Seoul maintained the North’s latest threats won’t affect its post-Cheonan moves. Unification Ministry spokesman Chun Hae-sung accused Pyongyang of “once again undermining inter-Korean relations” by taking threatening measures, even though it actually should have apologized for its attack on the Cheonan.

“We will unwaveringly and firmly deal with these North Korean threats.”

The United States, Seoul’s staunchest supporter, was befuddled by the North Korean move.

“I can’t imagine a step that is less in the long-term interest of the North Korean people than cutting off further ties with South Korea,” State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said in a press briefing. “I think it’s odd. South Korea is one of the most dynamic economies in the world. North Korea is a failing economy, even by their own admission. North Korea is unable to care for its citizens. It’s unable to feed its people.”

This month, inter-Korean ties have sunk to their lowest point since the turn of the decade. After a multinational team of investigators concluded last Thursday that a North Korean torpedo attacked the Cheonan, killing 46 on board, the South said it would no longer tolerate North Korean provocations and alter its defense posture to “proactive deterrence.” North Korea spewed its usual vindictive rhetoric, threatening military action if any sanctions were imposed.

It remains to be seen what North Korea will ultimately do with the Kaesong Industrial Complex, which was built in 2003 as a symbol of inter-Korean reconciliation. In Tuesday’s statement, the North only mentioned a possible expulsion of South Korean officials at the consultative office, but not workers on the site. More than 120 South Korean companies there employ about 42,000 North Koreans.

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