x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

North Korea pulls 53,000 workers from factory run with South

North Korea moves closer to severing its last economic link with its rival as tensions escalate.

SEOUL // North Korea suspended work yesterday at a factory complex it has jointly run with South Korea, pulling out more than 53,000 North Korean workers and moving closer to severing its last economic link with its rival as tensions escalate.

The Kaesong industrial complex just north of the Demilitarised Zone is the biggest employer in North Korea's third-largest city. Shutting it down, even temporarily, would show that the destitute country is willing to hurt its own economy to display its anger with South Korea and the United States.

Pyongyang's move follows weeks of threatening rhetoric and provocations aimed at Seoul and its US ally following UN sanctions punishing the North for its third nuclear test, on February 12. In recent days there have also been worries in Seoul of an even larger provocation from Pyongyang, including another possible nuclear test or rocket launch.

The point of the threats and possible future provocations, analysts say, is not a full-scale war, which North Korea would certainly lose. It is seen instead as an effort to force new, Pyongyang-friendly policies in South Korea and Washington and to boost domestic loyalty for Kim Jong-un, the country's young, still relatively untested new leader.

The statement about Kaesong came from Kim Yang-gon, the secretary of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea. It did not say what would happen to the 475 South Korean managers still at the Kaesong industrial complex. The statement also did not say whether the North Korean workers would be recalled immediately, and a South Korean manager at Kaesong said he had heard nothing from the North Korean government.

"North Korean workers left work at 6 o'clock today as they usually do. We'll know tomorrow whether they will come to work," said the manager.

North Korea had asked South Korean managers to say when they intended to leave by Wednesday; the manager said he did not know whether he and his South Korean colleagues now will be forced to leave.

Mr Kim's statement said 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.

South Korea's Unification Ministry, which is responsible for relations with the North, issued a statement saying South Korea will act "calmly and firmly" and will make its best efforts to secure the safety of South Koreans at Kaesong.

North Korea has unnerved the international community by orchestrating an escalating campaign of bombast in recent weeks. It has threatened to fire nuclear missiles at the US and claimed it had scrapped the 1953 armistice that ended fighting in the Korean War.

North Korea has found itself increasingly isolated. China, its most important ally, expressed unusual disappointment when Pyongyang announced last week that it was restarting a plutonium reactor to produce more nuclear-bomb fuel.

Russian president Vladimir Putin, during a visit to Germany, praised the US for postponing a missile test in California that had been set for this week, in the name of lowering tensions. Mr Putin said at a news conference that a conflict on the Korean Peninsula would make the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl "look like a children's story".