NK-Kaesong entry ban

SEOUL, April 4 (Yonhap) -- North Korea on Thursday maintained its entry ban on South Korean workers and cargo wanting to enter the inter-Korean industrial park in Kaesong for the second day despite Seoul's calls to lift the passage restrictions, the government said.

The Ministry of Unification said earlier in the day that it received official notification through the Kaesong Industrial District Management Committee that workers will only be permitted to leave the border town.

The ministry confirmed that of the 828 people who stayed overnight at the complex, 220 people and 140 vehicles crossed the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that separates the two Koreas during the day. There are now 608 South Koreans at the complex.

"Seoul's stance that operations at the industrial park should be normalized remains unchanged, and it is highly regrettable that the North is pursuing this course of action," a senior official, who declined to be identified said.

He said that if the movement restrictions on personnel and materials are not lifted soon, it is only a matter of time before production at Kaesong will be affected.

"Such a development is not in line with Pyongyang's plan to strengthen its economy as (it has) stated numerous times in the past," he said, adding that Pyongyang needed to make clear its views on the industrial complex. South Korea's Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae said Tuesday that Kaesong should be viewed as a sort of "priming water" that could facilitate inter-Korean cooperation down the road.

On mounting speculations as to why the North is taking actions that could hurt it economically, the official said it may be a ploy to divert attention from the communist country's development of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). He also claimed it may be part of the North's strategy to fuel security concerns in South Korea and stir social discord. There have been calls in the South for the new Park Geun-hye administration to take a more conciliatory stance and not follow the hard-line polices of the previous government.

The official said that despite mounting rhetorical and physical threats, Seoul is preparing for all contingencies and ready to reply accordingly, although he gave no details.

The ministry in charge of dialogue with the North and formulating unification policies repeatedly said that it will not accept unreasonable demands made by the North and continue to call on Pyongyang to make right choices, including giving up its WMD ambitions. The isolationist country has detonated three nuclear devices and launched five rockets with the last having the range to hit the United States.

It also pointed out that under an agreement reached on the safe passage of people and materials to Kaesong, the North does not have the right to unilaterally prevent people from entering the industrial park.

The Customs, Immigration and Quarantine Office (CIQ) in Paju, about 50 kilometers northwest of Seoul, said that workers wanting to enter Kaesong showed up again throughout the day in hopes that the North might have lifted the ban. They left after seeing that the borders were to remain closed.

On Wednesday, the communist country first informed Seoul that it will block South Koreans from entering the industrial park and made clear it will not impede the outflow of workers over the DMZ. The Kaesong complex continues to operate normally because there are still South Korean managers and North Korean workers running the 123 factories and companies had stockpiled parts and building materials.

Meanwhile, workers who returned to the South said there had been no real change at the Kaesong complex, although security was tightened and the North prohibited all outflow of machinery.

They said more people were leaving because Friday is a public holiday in the North, which means most factories will be closed. Border crossings do not take place on public holidays.

Related to the restrictions imposed by the North, the association for South Korean firms in the Kaesong Industrial Complex and the Korea Federation of Small and Medium Business released a joint statement at the CIQ stressing that production must not be halted at Kaesong. The complex employs about 800 South Korean workers and more than 53,000 North Korean laborers.

They said travel restrictions are seriously affecting business operations and that some plants have already stopped work. The groups said that if the restrictions are maintained for more than a week things can become very dire.

The business groups then asked the Seoul government to play a more active role in stabilizing the situation since the Kaesong complex was created under an agreement between the two governments.

On future prospects, local North Korean watchers like Chang Yong-seok, a senior researcher at the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University, said there is a chance that Pyongyang will close the Kaesong complex, but for a short period of time.

Besides banning entry, Pyongyang warned it could pull out all of its workers from the border town, stopping all operations.

"Recent actions may be a way to win justification and blame Seoul for the closure that could limit the economic fallouts," he said.

Most economist have said the North needs outside help if its wants to right its economy. And force closure of the complex can easily scare off investors.

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