(4th LD) N.K. expels S. Korean officials from Kaesong park |
By Shim Sun-ah
SEOUL, March 27 (Yonhap) -- North Korea expelled all South Korean government officials from their joint office in the Kaesong industrial complex Thursday, the Unification Ministry said, in an apparent sign of strained ties after the launch of the conservative Lee Myung-bak administration.
President Lee has vowed to take a tough position on the North and link further inter-Korean cooperation projects to progress in international negotiations over North Korea's nuclear programs. The position is a stark departure from that of his two liberal predecessors, who refrained from criticizing the nuclear-armed state due to concern over the possibility of hindering reconciliation.
The expulsion follows Unification Minister Kim Ha-joong's remarks last week that it would be difficult to expand the complex without progress in North Korea's denuclearization.
"The South Korean government pulled out all of its 11 officials residing in the Inter-Korean Exchanges and Cooperation Consultation Office in the Kaesong complex at about 1 a.m. Thursday after the North demanded their withdrawal," Kim Ho-nyeon, spokesman for the Unification Ministry, said in a press briefing.
North Korea cited the minister's remarks as a reason for the demand, he said, adding that five South Korean civilians are now working at the Kaesong office.
Pyongyang gave the officials three days to leave and there was no physical clash in the process, according to other ministry officials.
"We express deep concern over the North's unilateral demand. All responsibility resulting from the measure lies with the North Korean side," Kim said.
He called for Pyongyang to ensure an early return to normality for the joint office, warning that the incident may cause a delay in the development of the Kaesong industrial park.
The presidential office also expressed regrets at the expulsion.
"North Korea's abrupt act is regrettable and may pose an obstacle to sustained development of inter-Korean relations," presidential spokesman Lee Dong-kwang said after an emergency meeting of related officials presided over by the President Lee.
"The (South Korean) government will deal with the Kaesong incident in accordance with its pragmatic policy. We'll thoroughly stick to the principle, though a flexible approach will be adopted."
A similar incident occurred in July 2006 when North Korea temporarily expelled three of nine South Korean officials stationed in Kaesong after Seoul suspended shipments of rice and fertilizer in protest at Pyongyang's missile tests.
The Kaesong complex, located just north of the heavily armed inter-Korean border, is one of the key outcomes of the 2000 summit in which the leaders of the two Koreas reached an agreement on peace and reconciliation. Sixty-nine South Korean labor-intensive manufacturers are operating factories at the facility, employing about 24,000 North Korean workers.
The two Koreas agreed to expand the complex at their second summit last year.
The Kaesong office opened in October 2005, becoming the first permanent inter-Korean consultative office in North Korea since the 1950-53 Korean War. About 10 North Korean officials work in the office.
Multilateral talks on the North's denuclearization, involving the United States, China, Russia, Japan and the two Koreas, have recently been stalled over a dispute on a declaration of the North's nuclear programs and proliferation activities that Pyongyang agreed to submit before the end of 2007.
The North claims it submitted the list, while the U.S. said it has yet to receive a "complete and correct" declaration that includes the North's suspected uranium enrichment program as well as past and present nuclear cooperation with other countries.
Some North Korea experts, however, see it as Pyongyang's message that it feels no need to sit around a dialogue table with Seoul as long as the conservative South Korean president is in office.
"Departing from its earlier wait-and-see position, the North took an action to convey its intent not to cooperate with South Korea any longer," said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, by phone.
South Korea's liberal parties showed regret over the expulsion but blamed the Lee administration for the crisis.
"The symbol of reconciliation efforts between the two Koreas has been put at risk due mainly to the Lee administration's unripe North Korea policy," said Yoo Jong-pil, spokesman of the main opposition United Democratic Party. "It is also regretful that the North Korean authorities have taken such an emotional action which will be beneficial to neither the South nor the North."
The minor opposition Democratic Labor Party also criticized the Lee government for damaging the momentum of inter-Korean cooperation by unveiling a hostile policy toward the North.
"It is sad to see that our initial concerns of facing a setback in the inter-Korean relationship under the new government have been proven right," the party's spokeswoman Woo Moo-suk said. "The Lee government must not cause further concerns by relating inter-Korean cooperation to the United States' stance on the North."