Pyongyang expelled 11 South Korean officials from the joint Kaesong industrial park on Thursday in protest against Seoul's new conservative approach toward North Korea. Nathalie Tourret reports.
SEOUL — North Korea on Thursday expelled South Korean officials from a joint industrial estate just north of the border, its first response to Seoul's new tougher line towards the communist state.
The expulsions were in protest at comments by a South Korean minister linking expansion of the Kaesong estate to the North's denuclearisation, said a spokesman for Seoul's unification ministry.
The presidential office said the expulsions could damage ties, which have been gradually improving in recent years after decades of deep hostility.
The ministry said Seoul early Thursday withdrew 11 officials from a joint office in the complex after the North demanded they leave.
It was the first such mass expulsion since the Seoul-funded Kaesong complex was set up in 2005, following a landmark 2000 summit.
Kaesong is the most important joint project and most visible symbol of reconciliation between the two Koreas, who remain technically on a wartime footing. Almost 24,000 North Korean workers earning about 70 US dollars a month produce light industrial goods there for 69 South Korean firms.
South Korea's new conservative President Lee Myung-Bak has promised to take a more pragmatic and less ideological line with the North, after a decade-long "sunshine" engagement policy under his liberal predecessors.
Lee called an emergency meeting of security-related officials after the expulsions.
"North Korea's abrupt act is regrettable and may pose an obstacle to sustained development of inter-Korean relations," his spokesman Lee Dong-Gwan said afterwards.
"The government will deal with the Kaesong incident in accordance with its pragmatic policy. We'll thoroughly stick to the principle, though a flexible approach will be adopted."
The expulsions were the North's first action against the new government, Sogang University professor Kim Young-Soo told AFP.
"We are likely to see inter-Korean ties become tense and military tensions will increase along the border."
Managers of the estate said South Korean factory bosses were not being hindered from travelling to the estate, a capitalist enclave just north of the heavily fortified border that is a valuable source of hard currency for the impoverished North.
But the unification ministry, which handles relations with the North, said the expulsions may spark anxiety among potential investors.
Last week, Unification Minister Kim Ha-Joong said Kaesong would not be expanded unless progress was made in scrapping the North's nuclear programme.
North Korea last year signed a six-nation deal to abandon its nuclear weapons, but the process has been deadlocked by a dispute over its promised declaration of all nuclear programmes.
The North says it submitted the declaration last November. But the United States says Pyongyang has not fully accounted for a suspected uranium enrichment programme and allegations of nuclear proliferation to Syria.
US President George W. Bush and his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao in a telephone conversation on Wednesday pressed North Korea to come clean, according to US officials.
South Korea's visiting Foreign Minister Yu Myung-Hwan also said after talks with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that "time and patience is running out."
On Wednesday, Unification Minister Kim said improvements in bilateral relations "will be decided according to progress in the North Korean nuclear issue."
The new administration wants to tie non-humanitarian aid more closely to nuclear disarmament. It has pledged to heighten transparency in the spending of an Inter-Korean Cooperation Fund.
Seoul has so far spent 5.18 trillion won (5.45 billion US dollars) from the fund — 93% of it in the past decade.
Lee has additionally said he will press the North to improve its widely criticised human rights record. Media reports say South Korea will support a critical resolution at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva this week.
Date created : 2008-03-27