SEOUL, South Korea – A factory complex that is North Korea’s last major economic link with the South was a virtual ghost town today after Pyongyang suspended its operations and recalled all 53,000 of its workers, cutting off jobs and a source of hard currency in its war of words and provocations against Seoul and Washington.
Only a few hundred South Korean managers remain at the Kaesong industrial complex, which has been run with cheap North Korean labor and South Korean capital and know-how for the past decade. The managers have not been forced to leave the facility just north of the Demilitarized Zone.
One manager said today that he and his colleagues are subsisting on ramen but planned to stay and watch over the company’s equipment as long as their food lasted.
New South Korean President Park Geun-hye, who has sought to re-engage North Korea with dialogue and aid, expressed exasperation with what she called the “endless vicious cycle” of answering hostile behavior with compromise, only to get more hostility.
Pyongyang said Monday it would recall all North Korean workers from the complex and would decide later whether to shut it down for good.
The work stoppage at the biggest employer in the North’s third-biggest city shows that Pyongyang is willing to hurt its own shaky economy in order to display its anger with South Korea and the United States. North Korea has a per capita GDP of $1,800 per year, far below that of its neighbors in Northeast Asia, according to the U.S. State Department.
Pyongyang has unleashed a torrent of threats at Seoul and Washington following U.N. sanctions punishing the North for its third nuclear test, on Feb. 12, and joint military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea that allies call routine but that Pyongyang sees as invasion preparation.
U.S. and South Korean defense officials have said they’ve seen nothing to indicate that Pyongyang is preparing for a major military action in which it would be heavily outgunned. But they have raised their defense postures, and so has Japan, which deployed PAC-3 missile interceptors in key locations around Tokyo as a precaution today against possible North Korean ballistic missile tests.
Park, who took office in February, said she is “very disappointed” by the suspension of operations at Kaesong, and that it would only scare away any opportunity for North Korea to bring in foreign investment.
“North Korea should stop doing wrong behavior and make a right choice for the future of the Korean nation,” Park said at the start of a regular Cabinet Council meeting, according to a South Korean media pool report posted on the website of her office.
The Kaesong complex is the last symbol of inter-Korean rapprochement projects from previous eras of cooperation. Other projects such as reunions of families separated by war and tours to a scenic North Korean mountain became stalled in recent years.
Kim Yang Gon, secretary of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, announced Monday on a visit to Kaesong that operations at the complex would be suspended. He said the facility “has been reduced to a theater of confrontation.”
Kim said in a statement released by state media that North Korea will now consider whether to close the complex permanently. “How the situation will develop in the days ahead will entirely depend on the attitude” of South Korean authorities, it said. The message did not say what would happen to the about 400 South Korean managers still at Kaesong.