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2009/03/26 10:30 KST
NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 47 (March 26, 2009)

   *** TOPIC OF THE WEEK (Part 2)

North Korea Reopens Communications Channel, Inter-Korean Border

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- After closing the inter-Korean border three times in nearly two weeks, North Korea restored a severed military communications channel and reopened the border over the weekend for South Koreans visiting a joint industrial complex, following the conclusion of a U.S.-South Korean military exercise.

   Passage in and out of North Korea through the military demarcation line now appears to have been normalized as North Korea allowed South Koreans to visit the Kaesong industrial complex this week.

   North Korea banned border access and also cut off military communication lines with South Korea on March 9, the day the joint Key Resolve and Foal Eagle exercise commenced. The military communication lines were the only remaining official channels of dialogue between the two Koreas.

   The North had said the suspensions would be effective throughout the joint drill period, and that it would take provocative action toward the South to protest the drills, which it viewed as preparations for an invasion.

   On March 21, the North Korean military in charge of border crossing sent a letter of approval via the restored inter-Korean fax channel shortly after 8 a.m., Unification Ministry officials said.

   "The military communication line was reopened around 8 a.m., and North Korea later sent a letter of approval for border traffic by fax," Lee Jong-ju, Seoul's Unification Ministry's deputy spokesperson, said in a press conference.

   "The military communication channel and border traffic to the Kaesong region appear to have been normalized for now," she said, but noted that Seoul officials will have to see whether the North continues to allow smooth cross-border traffic and communications.

   With the border reopened, hundreds of South Korean workers and trucks resumed trips to the Kaesong complex on March 21.

   For sustained development of the Kaesong industrial complex, Seoul places the utmost priority on systematic permission for overland travel to the joint industrial zone in the North, Lee said, urging the North to continue to allow people and cargo to travel freely to the industrial park.

   The arbitrary, repeated closures sparked fears about doing business in the Kaesong complex. During the joint drill, North Korea sealed the inter-Korean border three times, with the latest closure on March 20. The measure threatened production in the joint industrial complex, as hundreds of South Korean workers and cargo trucks were forced to cancel their trips.

   Seoul's Vice Unification Minister Hong Yang-ho urged North Korea to stop arbitrarily closing the border, saying that it "makes us question whether it is willing to continue the Kaesong industrial complex."

   Just an hour's drive from Seoul, 101 South Korean firms operate at the joint complex, joining South Korean capital and technology with North Korean labor. About 39,000 North Koreans are employed there, producing clothes, watches, kitchenware, electronic equipment and other labor-intensive goods. Their combined output was worth US$250 million last year.

   Other projects -- including tours to the North's scenic Mt. Kumgang and historic sites in Kaesong, an ancient Korean capital -- have all been suspended as political relations disintegrated last year.

   The Kaesong venture is the only major reconciliatory project that remains intact from the first inter-Korean summit in 2000.

   The North Korean government received $26 million in wages from South Korean firms last year, according to ministry data. The amount was sizable, given the North's estimated export volume of $4 billion.

   By closing the border and withdrawing the measure, analysts said, the North showed itself to be in full command of the inter-Korean situation, while the South had few options.

   Experts here were concerned that the North may try to further abuse the border for pressuring the South, which has been assuming a tougher stance toward the North under President Lee Myung-bak. Pyongyang protests President Lee's "pragmatic" North Korean policies based on reciprocity, while Seoul remains critical of North's slander campaigns against the conservative Lee Myung-bak administration.

   Pyongyang's repeated border shutdowns, meanwhile, have taken a toll on South Korean operations in Kaesong. But despite the disruptions, neither the North nor the South is expected to try to shut down the complex, as it not only is a lucrative business, but remains as the only remaining inter-Korean economic project.

  (END)