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*** TOPIC OF THE WEEK (Part 2)

S. Korea Pulls Workers from Kaesong upon N. Korea's Rejection of Dialogue Proposal

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- All South Korean but seven peoples at a suspended joint industrial park in the North Korean border town of Kaesong returned home April 27 and 29 following the Seoul government's decision to evacuate all nationals after Pyongyang rejected a proposal for dialogue.

   All remaining South Koreans had originally been scheduled to return home on April 29, but seven had to stay behind to settle accounts and other unresolved matters, the South's Unification Ministry said on April 30.

   North Korea had warned of "final and decisive action" against the complex if South Korea pulled its remaining workers from the site but allowed the South Koreans to return home.

   "The North side gave permission for 43 people to leave, and they crossed the military demarcation line," a ministry official told reporters, clarifying some of the reasons that had held up their departure.

   The seven who stayed back include five from the joint body that ran the factory zone and two who handle communications with Seoul, he said.

   "The North has asked for pay due to its workers for March, some overdue wages, unpaid corporate taxes by the 123 companies that have factories at Kaesong and outstanding communication service-related fees," the official said.

   He said that while Seoul's stance remains firm on which side is to blame for the current situation, it intends to meet legitimate obligations raised by the North.

   The official said Hong Yang-ho, chairman of the Kaesong Industrial District Management Committee, will remain behind with the staff to settle accounts.

   The official did not reveal how much the North was demanding, but Pyongyang probably requested around US$7.2 million in wages. A North Korean worker gets on average $134 per month.

   "What they are asking is not excessive," the ministry official said, pointing out that there will be some negotiations. The official said that the South will ask the North to allow companies to retrieve finished goods still in Kaesong.

   He said the North did not mention the issue of Seoul possibly cutting off electricity to the complex once all South Koreans have left Kaesong.

   South Korea had erected power lines that can provide a maximum 100,000 kilowatts of electricity to Kaesong. It has a water processing plant at the complex that can supply 60,000 tons of water to the zone.

   South Korea on April 25 offered government-level talks to North Korea to discuss restarting the joint industrial complex, which has been suspended since April 9 when North Korea withdrew its 53,000 workers from the complex amid heightened tensions between the two Koreas, citing U.S.-involved joint military exercises with South Korea.

   North Korea rejected the offer the next day leading the South to withdraw its workers from the factory park, which stands as the last remaining symbol of inter-Korean economic cooperation.

   "We are making an official offer to North Korea to hold a working-level meeting to discuss ways of normalizing the suspended Kaesong Industrial Complex and providing humanitarian aid to South Korean workers there," the Ministry of Unification said in a statement that set the deadline as noon the following day for the North's response.

   North Korea turned down the offer two hours after the deadline and warned it would take grave actions first.

   "Pyongyang will be the first to take tough action if the South insists on worsening the situation at the border town," the North's National Defense Commission said in a statement monitored in Seoul.

   The statement, carried by the (North) Korean Central Television Broadcasting Station and Radio Pyongyang monitored in Seoul, scoffed at the proposal for talks calling it a "mockery" and the product of those who pushed inter-Korean relations into a war footing.

   "Making ultimatums against the DPRK and warning of serious consequences will only lead to final destruction (for the South)," the statement said. DPRK stands for the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, the North's official name.

   Following the North's rejection, South Korea decided on April 26 to pull its workers and managers from the industrial complex.

   Rodong Sinmun, an organ of the ruling Workers' Party of (North) Korea (WPK), said the South's decision to pull its workers from the complex "constituted a rash and despicable act."

   "Such measures have raised the risk of complete closure of the complex, and South Korea will never be able to avoid blame if such developments occur," it said.

   North Korea, however, did not mention if the complex will be closed, leading North Korea watchers here to suggest that the impoverished country may leave the complex as it is for the time being as it watches the steps of the South.

   Most recently, North Korea warned Seoul not to destroy the Kaesong industrial complex.

   In a commentary by the government newspaper Minju Joson, North Korea said on April 30 that if South Korea shuts down the joint industrial complex, it will never be pardoned.

   Pyongyang accused Seoul of trying to cover up its premeditated scheme to scuttle the project through its pledge to provide financial assistance to companies working in Kaesong that are suffering financially from the plant's suspension.

   Some North Korea watchers in Seoul speculate that while Minju Joson's claim is primarily intended to hold South Korea accountable, it may be a sign that Pyongyang does not want to take the first step to completely close down the industrial park.

   Other experts said North Korea may be hoping to keep the complex alive and restart production; at least once it is given a justifiable reason to do so. Seoul needs to keep calm and wait for the North to come to the negotiation table, they said.

   They advised that there is a need for the government to seek dialogue with the North now that the Foal Eagle joint military exercise with the U.S. has concluded. North Korea has traditionally avoided dialogue during the South Korea-U.S. military drills on the grounds that war and dialogue cannot be held at the same time, they noted.