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2008/11/27 10:54 KST
NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 31 (November 27, 2008)

   *** TOPIC OF THE WEEK (Part 1)

N. Korea Suspends Kaesong Tours, Historic Cross-border Train Link

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- In its strongest action yet this year, North Korea notified South Korea on Nov. 24 that it will suspend inter-Korean tourism to the ancient city of Kaesong and halt the only cross-border train service starting Dec. 1 in protest of Seoul's tough policy toward Pyongyang.

   The North also said it will halve the number of South Korean staff allowed to stay in the Kaesong industrial park for business operations. If implemented, these measures could mean the suspension of all other inter-Korean joint projects outside the Kaesong complex.

   "The North's side has notified us that it will strictly limit and block overland passage through the Military Demarcation Line by all South Korean civilian groups and businesspeople," Seoul's Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Ho-nyoun told reporters.

   North Korean authorities delivered the messages through seven channels, Kim said. In their messages, the North said it will close an office operating the Kaesong park and expel all South Korean staff. It also demanded that South Korea withdraw 50 percent of its workers and staff members from the industrial park by the end of November.

   The statement was released by the head of the North Korean delegation at the general-level inter-Korean military talks. The North said these steps are only "primary measures," and claims the responsibility for the development lies with the Seoul government's "hostile policies."
Pyongyang has called on South Korean President Lee Myung-bak to fulfill two bilateral summit accords minted under his liberal predecessors.

   The North will also cut off a symbolic daily train service between the South Korea's Munsan and Bongdong in the North. The business activities of South Korean firms operating at the Kaesong industrial park are to remain largely unaffected.

   "The South Korean puppets are still hell-bent on the treacherous and anti-reunification confrontational racket," said a message from the North's military, carried by the country's official Korean Central News Agency.

   Pyongyang warned earlier this month it would restrict overland passage across the inter-Korean border starting Dec. 1, without elaborating on the exact moves it would take. Pyongyang closed its Red Cross mission and cut off direct phone links at the truce village of Panmunjom after issuing the warning.

   On Nov. 6, North Korean military officials, led by Lt. Gen. Kim Yong-chol, conducted inspections at the Kaesong complex, asking South Korean firms how long it would take for them to withdraw. On Nov. 12, the North Korean military threatened that it will "strictly restrict and cut off" all overland passages of the inter-Korean border from Dec. 1.

   South Korea has expressed "serious regret" over Pyongyang's most recent announcement while calling on North Korea to return to dialogue.

   "The North's behavior of restricting and halting economic cooperation, which is meaningful to improving inter-Korean relations, constitutes a grave incident that would practically reverse the relations," said ministry spokesman Kim. He added the government will take necessary measures to ensure the safety of South Koreas residing in the North.

   A senior aide to President Lee Myung-bak said the government will calmly deal with the North's renewed provocation. "The North's actions were not unexpected," the official added.

  Nevertheless, South Korea's Defense Ministry said it has not altered its plans to provide communication equipment and materials to the North. Pyongyang earlier asked Seoul for the equipment to "modernize" inter-Korean military lines.

   The seven messages were sent to South Korean authorities, firms operating in Kaesong, two private bodies overseeing management of the firms, Hyundai Asan, which operates the tours to Kaesong and Mt. Kumgang, and two other South Korean companies engaged in joint ventures with the North, according to the ministry.

   In the messages, the North said it will selectively allow cross-border traffic by vehicles, drivers and other staffers necessary to carry materials into the North, but will shut the border to South Koreans coming to discuss economic cooperation and trade with North Korean officials.

   The North will halve the number of South Korean workers in the Kaesong complex but "ensure" industrial activities by the plants since it does not want them to be a scapegoat for Seoul's "reckless confrontational policy" in consideration of the financial difficulties of the mostly small-sized firms, one of the messages said.

   The inter-Korean joint office in Kaesong will be closed, and the remaining six South Korean staffers there will be forced out, the North said. The two Koreas opened the joint office in October 2005 to smooth out civilian economic cooperation projects, but it has not operated normally since the North ejected 11 South Korean government officials there in March.

   Analysts say the North's plans to restrict cross-border traffic, if carried out, would also seriously cripple civilian exchanges between the two Koreas, which have so far been mostly unaffected by the two countries' tense political interactions.

   "North Korea is going to start with the suspension of Kaesong tour, a measure that might incur damage to itself, above all other measures," said Koh You-hwan, a North Korea expert at Seoul's Dongguk University. "This signals the North's willingness to cut all civilian exchanges, too," he said.

   Kim Yeon-churl, chief of the private Hankyoreh Peace Research Institute, said the series of measures announced by the North is "tantamount to a full suspension of inter-Korean exchanges at both governmental and civilian levels."

   "They reflect North Korea's strong intention to force South Korea to change its policy by taking a strong action when chances are high that relations between the North and the United States will improve," he said.

   Pyongyang will watch and see South Korea's response in the coming days, preparing to maximize its pressure on Seoul to change its policy, the analysts said. Some experts forecast the border restrictions, if taken, will also jeopardize the Kaesong complex by slowing production and decreasing investment in the complex.

   Eighty-eight small-sized garment and other labor-intensive plants were operating in Kaesong, located just north of the heavily armed border, as of the middle of this month. The businesses employ more than 36,000 North Korean and 1,500 South Korean workers.

   Inter-Korean relations have soured since the conservative South Korean President Lee Myung-bak took office in February. Lee has vowed that the expansion of inter-Korean projects will only follow North Korea's nuclear disarmament. The North expelled all South Korean government officials from Kaesong and the industrial complex a month after the government's launch.

   South Korea suspended tours to the resort mountain of Kumgang immediately after a North Korean soldier shot and killed a South Korean tourist who wandered into a restricted area in July. The joint tour program to Kaesong has continued to run normally, however, despite the tension. The total number of tourists to Kaesong broke the 100,000 mark in October, almost 10 months after the program began.

   The rail link across the western part of the demilitarized zone began its regular service last December for the first time in almost 50 years, but recently has been running almost empty as manufacturers favor trucks.

   North Korea is especially upset by Seoul's reluctance to carry out a slew of cross-border economic projects that were agreed upon in the historic summits of 2000 and 2007. Those projects would require massive South Korean investment in the impoverished communist state.

   North Korea has also protested the spreading of anti-Pyongyang leaflets by South Korean activist groups. South Korea's large-scale war exercises with the U.S. military and the South's participation as a sponsor of the U.N. resolution on North Korea human rights this year further agitated the North.

   "The prospect of inter-Korean relations will entirely depend on the attitude of the South Korean authorities," the message from the North's military warned, stressing that the North Korean military never makes "empty talk."