SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea said Monday that it was withdrawing all of its 53,000 workers from the industrial park it runs with South Korea, suggesting that the North was seeking to portray itself as willing to subordinate financial gains to political and military priorities as it increased tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
North Korea “will temporarily suspend the operations in the zone and examine the issue of whether it will allow its existence or close it,” the country’s official Korean Central News Agency quoted a North Korean official as saying after visiting the complex on Monday.
The official, Kim Yang Gon, a secretary of the Central Committee of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party of Korea, said the final decision would depend on the South Korean government’s attitude, making it clear that North Korea was using the project’s future to pressure the South for political concessions.
The complex, in the North Korean border town of Kaesong, operated for eight years despite continuing political and military tensions, including the North Korean artillery attack on a South Korean island 2 1/2 years ago and the cutoff of all other trade ties after the sinking of a South Korean warship in 2010.
South Koreans had hoped that the North’s growing dependence on the complex as an important source of hard currency would provide the South with leverage on the North’s recalcitrant leadership. South Korea also thought that it could be used as a possible buffer should there be military conflict.
But the North was angered after its threat this month to close the complex was met with skepticism from some news media analysts who said the North’s leader, Kim Jong Un, would not want to risk losing the cash. On Monday, North Korea said it “gets few economic benefits from the zone while the South side largely benefits from it.”
As with many of the repressive government’s aggressive moves, closing the factory park would harm North Koreans. It is the biggest employer in Kaesong, the North’s third-largest city. It generates $90 million a year in wages for the North Koreans employed there, and shutting it down would affect the lives of 200,000 to 300,000 people in the area, South Korean analysts estimate.
Kim “is not accountable to his people, and thereby can afford to raise tension almost indefinitely at a great cost to his own people,” said Lee Sung-yoon, a North Korea specialist at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Massachusetts. He recalled that the government did not change its policy even after a famine killed an estimated 10 percent of the North Korean population in the mid-1990s.
Hours before the North made its announcement, South Korea said it had no intention of talking with North Korea. Doing so amid a torrent of North Korean threats to attack the South and the United States with nuclear weapons would amount to capitulation and would only embolden the North’s brinkmanship, officials here said.