North Korea has reopened its border to South Koreans bound for a showpiece industrial estate in the secretive nation, ending a sporadic blockade which threatened to shut down factories there. The North gave no explanation for its change of heart, which comes amid continuing high tensions between the two governments. Elsewhere along the heavily fortified frontier, activists today floated more anti-Pyongyang leaflets into the North - defying warnings from Seoul that their campaign will further inflame the situation.
The communist state has for months been angry at a tougher stance on relations taken by Seoul's conservative government. It has blasted an ongoing US-South Korean military exercise, calling it a prelude to invasion. The North has also scheduled what it calls a satellite launch for April 4-8. Washington and Seoul say its real purpose is to test a ballistic missile that could reach Alaska. On March 9, the first day of the joint exercise, the North switched off military phone and fax lines that were used to authorise border crossings, before relenting the following day.
Last Friday it again shut the border without explanation, raising fears that many South Korean plants at the Kaesong estate would soon have to close for lack of raw materials. Seoul officials said the North's military has sent a letter authorising the resumption of trips both ways across the western and eastern crossings. Again, there was no explanation. Kaesong estate opened in 2005 as a symbol of reconciliation on the divided peninsula, but its operations have several times been hampered by political tensions.
About 39,000 North Koreans work for 98 South Korean firms, producing items such as watches, clothes, shoes and kitchenware. Raw materials are trucked northwards and finished products travel the other way. Koh Yu-Hwan, a professor at Seoul's Dongguk University, said the saga may indicate a lack of communications between the North's military and its economy-related agencies. "In order to protest the US-South Korean military exercise, the North's military may have cut off border communications lines without thinking enough about the impact the move would have on economic and other sectors," he said.
The estate earns the impoverished North US$30 million (Dh110m) a year in wages for workers, which are paid directly to official bodies. At the Imjingak border area not far from the crossing, rights activists launched 10 giant balloons carrying a total of 100,000 leaflets denouncing the North's regime and its leader Kim Jong-Il. "Down with Kim Jong-Il dictatorship" read a message on one balloon. The activists have started attaching North Korean banknotes to the flyers to encourage Northerners to pick them up, despite the risk of punishment.
The Seoul government has urged them to halt the launches, on the grounds they could inflame relations, but says it has no laws to ban them. However the activists have been investigated for a possible legal breach by attaching North Korean won. Seoul says unauthorised use of the currency in the South is punishable by up to three years in jail or heavy fines. The North's Premier Kim Yong-Il arrived in Beijing today as his nation prepared for the widely-criticised satellite launch.
Washington and Seoul say the launch is to test a long-range missile in defiance of a United Nations resolution passed after the North's missile and nuclear tests in 2006. China, one of Pyongyang's few major allies and its largest trade partner, has not publicly stated its position on the launch. Beijing also hosts six-nation talks on dismantling North Korea's nuclear programmes, which have been stalled since last December.