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Tensions rise as North Korea blocks access to crucial industrial zone

South Korea says it is looking at all options, including military action, to protect its citizens.

A South Korean marine during a military exercise against possible attacks by North Korea today
A South Korean marine during a military exercise against possible attacks by North Korea today
Image: AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon

NORTH KOREA HAS blocked South Korean entry to a key joint industrial zone today, matching its angry rhetoric with action as Washington condemned Pyongyang’s “dangerous, reckless” behaviour.

Any move on the Seoul-funded Kaesong complex – established in 2004 and a crucial source of hard currency for North Korea- carries enormous significance and the potential to send tensions soaring.

Neither of the Koreas has allowed previous crises to significantly affect Kaesong, the only surviving example of inter-Korean cooperation and seen as a bellwether for the stability of the Korean peninsula.

South Korea’s defence ministry said it had contingency plans that included “military action” for ensuring the safety of hundreds of South Koreans currently working in the complex.

The latest North Korean move fitted into a cycle of escalating tensions that have seen Pyongyang threaten missile and nuclear strikes against the United States and its ally South Korea in response to UN sanctions and joint military drills.

UN chief Ban Ki-Moon warned on Tuesday that the situation had “gone too far.”

South Korean officials said the North informed them Wednesday morning that it was stopping the daily movement of South Koreans into Kaesong – 10 kilometers on the North side of the border.

However, it would allow the 861 South Koreans currently there to leave, they said.

South Korean soldiers take part in a military exercise today (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

Describing the North’s move as “very regrettable”, Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Hyung-Suk called on the North to normalise movement to Kaesong “immediately.”

It was not clear how long the access ban would remain in effect.

The ministry said 46 South Korean were expected to return from Kaesong by the end of Wednesday, with hundreds opting to stay on to keep their companies running smoothly. Many of the South Koreans routinely stay for periods of several days.

Around 53,000 North Koreans work at 120 South Korean plants at the complex, which was still operating normally Wednesday.

Lee Jae-Young, manager at a watchmaking plant in Kaesong, was among those prevented from crossing into the North on Wednesday.

“I feel anxious about my colleagues there. This is an emergency situation and it doesn’t look good,” Lee told AFP.

“This could also be serious trouble for our business which requires the constant shipping of raw materials to Kaesong for manufacturing,” she added.

Cho Han-Bum, an analyst at the Korea Institute for National Unification, said Pyongyang was unlikely to risk a complete shutdown of Kaesong.

“There are more than 53,000 North Koreans working there, most of whom have immediate and extended family members who depend on them,” Cho told AFP.

“Shutting the whole thing down is financially significant enough to cause a riot among these people,” he added.

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Soaring tensions

Tensions have been soaring on the Korean peninsula since the North launched a long-range rocket in December and conducted its third nuclear test in February. Both events triggered UN sanctions.

In a rare show of force in the region, Washington has deployed nuclear-capable US B-52s, B-2 stealth bombers and two US destroyers to South Korean air and sea space.

US Secretary of State John Kerry has today denounced the “unacceptable rhetoric” emanating from Pyongyang and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un.

“What Kim Jong Un has been choosing to do is provocative. It is dangerous, reckless and the United States will not accept (North Korea) as a nuclear state,” Kerry said.

He was speaking after the North warned it would reopen its mothballed Yongbyon reactor – its source of weapons-grade plutonium.

Earlier, Ban Ki-moon warned the situation was veering out of control and stressed that “nuclear threats are not a game.”

“The current crisis has already gone too far… Things must begin to calm down,” Ban said, adding that negotiations were the only viable way forward.

The North shut down the Yongbyon reactor in July 2007 under a six-nation aid-for-disarmament accord.

Experts say it would take at least six months to get the reactor back up and running, after which it would be able to produce one bomb’s worth of weapons-grade plutonium a year.

- © AFP, 2013

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