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South Korean Officials Plan Exit from Joint Industry Zone in North


North and South Korea are drawing a step closer to what some fear may become the shutdown of a highly symbolic joint industrial project. As VOA's Kurt Achin reports from Seoul, the South is bringing home at least six of its officials prior to a border closure promised by the North.

South Korean Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Ho-nyoun says government officials will depart the Kaesong industrial park in North Korea and return home this week.

He says on Friday afternoon, they will cross the military demarcation line separating the two Koreas and "pull out" to the South.

The Kaesong park, built and managed by South Korea, is one of the centerpieces of the South's 10-year effort to engage the communist North peacefully with aid and investment. However, North-South relations have steadily chilled since conservative President Lee Myung-bak took office in January and tightened the no-strings-attached generosity of previous administrations.

Mr. Lee, whom the North labels a "traitor," has made South Korean assistance more contingent on Pyongyang's cooperation on key issues, such as getting rid of its nuclear weapons arsenal.

This week, the North suspended a tour program to Kaesong and halted daily freight train service from the South. A separate tourism program to the North's Mount Kumgang has been frozen since the North's military shot a visiting South Korean housewife to death, then refused to cooperate in an investigation of the incident. Pyongyang has warned it will completely restrict border crossings by South Korea starting Monday.

South Korean Unification Minister Kim Ha-joong told lawmakers Wednesday he cannot rule out the complete shutdown of the Kaesong industrial project.

He says he views the possibility of a shutdown as unlikely - but one he cannot eliminate completely from consideration.

Kim adds, North Korea's latest decisions have nothing to do with a hardline policy by South Korea. Rather, he says, North Korea is unwilling to resume dialogue with South Korea.

North Korea accuses the Lee administration of failing to uphold previous North-South agreements which promise the North billions of dollars in infrastructure investments and aid. In a radio interview this week, the chairman of President Lee's conservative ruling party described those agreements as "impractical."

North and South Korea are still planning to sit down together next month at multinational talks aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear weapons capabilities. Those talks also involve the United States. U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Kathleen Stephens said Wednesday any attempt by Pyongyang to isolate South Korea from its American ally would be unsuccessful.

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