North Korea pulls workers out of last joint industrial project with south

Move prompts speculation that nuclear test might be imminent

A North Korean soldier washes his socks as his comrade washes his hands at the banks of Yalu River, near the North Korean town of Sinuiju, opposite the Chinese border city of Dandong

A North Korean soldier washes his socks as his comrade washes his hands at the banks of Yalu River, near the North Korean town of Sinuiju, opposite the Chinese border city of Dandong

 

North Korea has recalled its workers from the Kaesong industrial park, ending its last remaining co-operative project with South Korea and prompting speculation that another nuclear test by Pyongyang might be imminent.

The move to withdraw workers is the latest episode in an increasingly tense situation on the Korean peninsula, which has caused fear among North Korea’s neighbours on all sides in the region.

North Korea has ramped up its aggressive tone since the United Nations imposed new sanctions in response to the North’s third test of a nuclear weapon in February. Pyongyang has been further angered by weeks of joint military exercises by South Korean and US forces and threatened both countries with nuclear attack.

This week could prove pivotal in deciding the future course of events. US secretary of state John Kerry visits Seoul this week while the North holds celebrations and military parades next Monday to mark the birth date of its founder, Kim Il- Sung, grandfather of the current leader, Kim Jong-un (30).

Since the crisis began, the North cut off three telephone “hot lines” and declared it was tearing up the armistice that ended fighting in the 1950-53 Korean War, saying it was in a state of war with the South.

The official North Korean news agency KCNA said the South Koreans were “running the whole gamut of intrigues to find a pretext for igniting a war after reducing the Kaesong Industrial zone to a theatre of confrontation”.

It then went on to quote Kim Yang-gon, secretary of the Central Committee of the Workers Party of Korea, saying the agency would temporarily suspend operations in the zone, which is a source of foreign currency for North Korea, “and examine the issue of whether it will allow its continued existence or close it.”

Last week, North Korea barred South Koreans from entering the area and since then, South Koreans have been trickling out of the area as supplies started to run thin.

Some 50,000 North Koreans work in the area making household goods for 123 South Korean companies, with turnover worth some €1.5 billion annually to the North. The €60 billion in wages is paid directly to the North Korean government.

South Korea’s unification ministry, which is responsible for relations with the North, issued a statement saying South Korea would act “calmly and firmly” and would make its best efforts to secure the safety of South Koreans at Kaesong.

Russian president Vladimir Putin, attending a joint news conference with chancellor Angela Merkel at a trade fair in Germany, said he was worried about the escalation of events on the Korean peninsula, as it bordered on Russia.

“And if, God forbid, something happens, Chernobyl which we all know a lot about, may seem like a child’s fairy tale. Is there such a threat or not? I think there is . . . I would urge everyone to calm down . . . and start to resolve the problems that have piled up for many years there at the negotiating table,” Mr Putin said.

United Nations secretary- general Ban Ki-moon said North Korea could not go on “confronting” the authority of the Security Council and challenging the international community.

“I sincerely hope that they will fully comply with the relevant Security Council resolutions,” Mr Ban added. “This is an urgent and earnest appeal from the international community, including myself.”

North Korea meanwhile has moved a mid-range Musudan missile to its east coast, but other than that has not shown any major signs of getting ready for war. The North has a massive army, with 1.2 million soldiers, and some analysts have said that the current round of sabre- rattling is aimed at appeasing the powerful military backers.

There was confusion this week after unification minister Ryoo Kihl-jae said there was “an indication” that the North was preparing another test.

However, defence ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok said no increase in activity has been detected, and Mr Ryoo subsequently told parliamentarians he could not remember making these remarks, and had not meant them, saying he was “startled” by reports carrying his earlier comments.