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NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 103 (April 22, 2010)

N. Korea Inspects Kaesong Zone, Could Restrict Border Access

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- A group of North Korean military officials have carried out a surprise inspection of the Kaesong industrial park early this week in what seemed to be a sign of scaling down or closing the joint industrial zone amid deepening distrust and confrontation between the divided Koreas.

   The North started the abrupt inspection on April 10 but ended it the following day. Wrapping up the inspection, however, North Korean officials did not elaborate on what steps they would take in the future, a Unification Ministry official said on April 20.

   Eight North Korean officials began inspecting the industrial park in the North Korean border town of Kaesong after giving abrupt notification, invoking concerns Pyongyang may be moving to put the brakes on the long-running symbol of reconciliation between the divided Koreas.

   A Unification Ministry official said the North Korean delegation made no comment on the future steps they will take in the operation of the Kaesong industrial park.

   During their two-day stay in Kaesong, the North Korean officials, including a senior director of the National Defense Commission (NDC), inspected four South Korean companies and such facilities as a substation and roads in Kaesong, Unification Ministry spokesman Chun Hae-sung said earlier in the day.

   The NDC is the highest seat of power in the North, chaired by leader Kim Jong-il. The North Korean officials asked both South Koreans and North Koreans at the park rudimentary questions about their operations, Chun said.

   "A wide range of questions was asked, such as items produced, the productivity of North Korean workers, the capacity of the sewage, and how certain facilities are maintained," Chun told reporters.

   Another ministry official, requesting anonymity, said the delegation of eight was led by Pak rim-su, the policy director of the NDC which has direct control over the North's military.

   It was known later that North Korea's military has expressed fear that high-rise buildings built by South Korea at the industrial zone could pose security threats to the North. According to sources on April 21, the North Koreans went up to the top of a 15-story inter-Korean business support center in Kaesong and voiced concerns that their troops in nearby areas may be scouted from there.

   On April 19, Pak and his team met with Moon Moo-hong, the South Korean head of the Kaesong industrial complex management committee, and complained about South Korean activists sending propaganda leaflets over the border in balloons, according to the official.

   The North's move coincides with a military warning on April 10 that it would soon take decisive measures against the South unless Seoul stopped "the despicable psychological smear campaign" among activists of sending leaflets, video tapes and DVDs aimed at toppling the reclusive regime. The North then said it would review whether to maintain an inter-Korean agreement on cross-border trips for South Koreans.

   In the April 10 statement, the North's military warned that it would take "decisive measures" if South Korea does not draw up plans to prevent propaganda activities such as sending leaflets to the communist state.

   The two Koreas agreed in 2004 to stop decades of propaganda warfare across the Demilitarized Zone dividing the nations, but the South Korean government says it can not prevent activists from sending the leaflets, citing freedom of speech.

   The North's warning came two days after the country scrapped a tourism deal with the South on its scenic mountain resort and froze assets owned by South Korea there. On April 13, the North expelled employees from the resort and shut down some South Korean-government owned facilities.

   In a similar development, a North Korean military delegation will visit the North's Mt. Kumgang resort on April 22 to check on the results of the real estate survey conducted by the North late last month.

   The North's inspection of the industrial park was reminiscent of a similar visit in November 2008, when North Korean military officials toured the Kaesong site and announced six days later that it would temporarily ban South Korean access to the industrial park. It also said it would shut down the liaison office for North-South economic cooperation, reduce the number of South Korean workers in the complex and suspend tour programs to its border town of Kaesong.

   The measure was in protest against the South Korean government's suspension of unconditional fertilizer and rice aid, which it linked to the dismantling of the North's nuclear weapons program.

   More than 100 South Korean companies operating in Kaesong were forced to scale back operations or close down. North Korea lifted the restrictions last August but could resort to similar restrictions to pressure the South into agreeing to resume suspended tours to Mt. Kumgang, which have been suspended since July 2008 following the shooting death of a South Korean tourist by a North Korean soldier at the mountain resort.

   Meanwhile, the North threatened to review the joint Kaesong industrial complex if Seoul does not make efforts to improve relations between the two Koreas.

   On April 8, the North's spokesman for the General Guidance Bureau for the Development of Scenic Spots of the DPRK (North Korea) said it would entirely reevaluate its joint industrial park with South Korea if bilateral relations continue to move along a "confrontational path."

   The spokesman also said, "The South Korean authorities will pay the price for driving inter-Korean relations to ruin by balking at the resumption of Mt. Kumgang tours."

   The lucrative tours were suspended in 2008 after a South Korean tourist was shot dead by a North Korean soldier for allegedly entering a restricted zone.

   The Kaesong park is the last remaining symbol of reconciliation between the divided countries, which remain technically at war after the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce.

   More than 110 South Korean firms employ some 42,000 North Korean workers at the Kaesong industrial park, born out of the first inter-Korean summit in 2000. The park began operating in 2004.

   The latest inspection came as inter-Korean ties began to deteriorate after a brief thaw. Unification Minister Hyun In-taek said on April 20 that Pyongyang appears to have reversed its conciliatory line on Seoul, while South Korean officials are investigating whether the March 26 sinking of a naval corvette that killed dozens had anything to do with the North.

   North Korea denied its involvement in the sinking last week, accusing the conservative Seoul government of fabricating the incident to stoke hostilities against Pyongyang.