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2008/12/04 10:37 KST
NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 32 (December 4, 2008)

   *** TOPIC OF THE WEEK

N. Korea Restricts Border Passages, Slashes S. Korean Staff in Kaesong

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korea followed through on Dec. 1 with repeated warnings to clamp down on border crossings by South Koreans working at a joint industrial complex in the North, a move widely seen as a tactic to pressure Seoul to alter its hardline stance.

   The North also suspended sightseeing tours to the ancient city of Kaesong, located just north of the heavily-fortified Demilitarized Zone.

   In what appeared to be retaliatory measures against Seoul's policies, the North allowed only 880 South Korean officials and managers to remain at the Kaesong joint industrial enclave, far below the level insisted on by Seoul.

   The complex is a key symbol of inter-Korean rapprochement and is the first cooperative manufacturing venture where South Korean firms employ North Korean laborers.

   North Korea notified Seoul's Unification Ministry on the evening of Nov. 30 of its decision, though South Korea had already withdrawn many of its workers and staff from the area by Nov. 28, following an earlier order from Pyongyang to halve the number of South Koreans working there.

   Pyongyang was initially expected to permit between 1,700-1,800 South Koreans to remain, and South Korea had requested that the North allow some 1,600 South Koreans to stay on at the Kaesong complex, claiming they were "essential" to operations.

   On the day the measures were put in place, the socialist country barred 56 South Koreans from crossing the border into the North, according to the unification ministry.

   The North first announced the unilateral measure on Nov. 24 as part of plans to tighten regulations on border crossings starting Dec. 1. Nearly all cross-border projects were put on hold the following weekend. South Korea halted over-the-border railway operations and sightseeing tours to the ancient city of Kaesong, and evacuated thousands of its nationals from the city and the South Korea-run mountain resort of Kumgang on the North's east coast.

   The North, meanwhile, also suspended tours to Kaesong and cross-border railway service between the South's Munsan and the North's Bongdong. The reclusive state also reduced the number of crossings across its eastern border to Mt. Kumgang to once a week and across the western border to Kaesong to three times a day.

   It reduced the number of people allowed to cross the border from the current 500 to 250 and vehicles from 200 to 150 or fewer. Crossings were previously allowed at 19 different times per day, but starting Dec. 1 will only be allowed at 9 a.m., 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. The North also banned entry of South Korean publications, newspapers and magazines critical of the regime.

   Concerns are mounting in the South that the North's decision could affect planned construction projects and business ventures at the complex. Many fear the downsizing will have a negative impact on the operations of the 88 small-sized South Korean manufacturers currently in the North, despite Pyongyang's pledge to exempt them from its retaliatory measures. As of Dec. 1, there were only about 680 South Korean nationals in Kaesong, down from around 4,000 a week ago.

   Seoul expressed regret on Dec. 1 over the North's actions and again urged Pyongyang to retract them. "The measure taken by the North to limit the border passage is very regrettable since it creates a hurdle to production activities by South Korean firms in Kaesong and undermines market confidence," Kim Ho-nyoun, the Unification Ministry spokesman, said in a statement.

   The spokesman noted the move "violates inter-Korean agreements, including those related to staying in Kaesong and Mt. Kumgang." He said the measure would "never be justified and must be retracted," adding it also runs counter to the Oct. 4 declaration Pyongyang has urged Seoul to implement. The spokesman repeated calls for the North to immediately respond to the dialogue proposal by Seoul.

   Seoul's Defense Ministry also blasted Pyongyang on Dec. 3 for breaching inter-Korean agreements, accusing it of violating every existing military agreement between the two Koreas and blaming the communist nation for what is now a nearly defunct relationship.

   "North Korea has breached or failed to honor most of the agreements reached between the South and the North in military affairs," the Defense Ministry told the special committee of the National Assembly on inter-Korean relations.

   The ministry also said the North continues to play a "very passive role" in improving inter-Korean relations, claiming the communist nation has only honored agreements beneficial to them. "Moreover, it has been blatantly violating the 1991 joint declaration on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula by developing nuclear capabilities and conducting a nuclear test," the ministry said.

   Inter-Korean relations have worsened since South Korea's conservative President Lee Myung-bak took office in February and took a firmer stance toward Pyongyang than his two liberal predecessors. Pyongyang has so far blamed Lee for heightening tensions by refusing to implement a slew of cross-border economic projects that were agreed upon in historic summits of 2000 and 2007 and to change his stance toward Pyongyang.

   Tour operations to historic sites in and around Kaesong, about 70 kilometers northwest of Seoul, are another victim of the escalating tensions. The tour program for South Koreans to North Korea, which began a year ago, are the second to be cancelled. In July, major tours to Mt. Kumgang -- the first North Korean destination opened to tourists -- were halted when a South Korean tourist was fatally shot dead by a North Korean soldier.

   The tour projects were initiated under Seoul's previous liberal governments. About 200 South Korean tourists visited a scenic waterfall, an historic temple and other sites in Kaesong and returned to Seoul later in the day, said an official at Hyundai Asan Corp., the North Korean business arm of South Korea's Hyundai conglomerate.

   Historic tours to Kaesong officially started last December following the Oct. summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and then South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun.

   An average of 300 to 400 South Korean tourists traveled the one-day trip to the ancient city just before the killing of South Korean tourist at Mt. Kumgang in July. As of Oct. 15, the number of tourists to Kaesong surpassed 100,000 people including 2,600 foreigners.

   It remains uncertain how North Korea's get-tough measures will affect the last remaining inter-Korean business project, a sprawling industrial zone in Kaesong where 88 South Korean firms employ about 35,000 North Korean workers. However, North Korea stopped short of taking any action against the Kaesong industrial complex since Dec. 1, saying the complex should not be a "scapegoat" of inter-Korean tension.

   The industrial complex, which pays North Korean workers US$70 monthly, is a major cash cow for the impoverished North. It is located about 70 kilometers from Seoul and a new highway and a restored rail link run through the DMZ taking materials from the South and finished products from the North.

   Kaesong is the first cooperative manufacturing venture where South Korean firms use North Korean labor. It is run by Hyundai Asan, part of the Hyundai Group, along with Korea Land Development Corp.

   Seoul's vision for the Kaesong project, which began in June 2003 and saw the first batch of goods shipped to South Korea in 2004, includes more than half a million North Koreans employed by 2,000 firms and with hotels, golf courses and a peace park.

   In more recent developments, North Korea was angered by Seoul's participation as a co-sponsor of the U.N. resolution denouncing Pyongyang's human rights situation in November. It has also voiced strong opposition to South Korea's large-scale war exercises with the U.S. military and the spreading of anti-Pyongyang leaflets by South Korean activist groups.

   The activists groups, however, say they will continue with plans to launch balloons filled with 100,000 flyers over the western land border into the North in retaliation against Pyongyang's hostile measures.

   On Dec. 2, dozens of South Korean conservative and liberal activists scuffled at Imjingak, located near the western border. Liberal activists have long favored engagement with the North, and were attempting to stop the conservative groups from sending the leaflets.

  (END)