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April 29, 2013

South Korean Workers at Kaesong Return Home

by Steve Herman

All but seven of the remaining South Korean workers at the only joint venture with the North have returned home late Monday.

Forty-three of the last 50 South Korean workers at the Kaesong industrial complex were given permission by North Korea to cross the border back into the South and have done so.

The Unification Ministry in Seoul says five personnel, including the chairman of the Kaesong Industrial Development Management Committee, plus two telecommunications company employees will remain in the zone to negotiate "unresolved issues."

Among them are unpaid wages for the 53,000 North Korean workers who were pulled out of Kaesong by their government on April 9.

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Chance remains for deal

While her foreign minister emphasizes the window for dialogue remains open on the fate of the zone, South Korean President Park Geun-hye is criticizing Pyongyang as "too unpredictable" in view of its decision to abruptly remove all of the factory workers.

The president questions "who would be willing to make investments in North Korea" after the existing mutual agreement about Kaesong has abruptly turned "into bubbles." She said her government will do its best to provide substantial support for the 123 businesses and their workers "so as to help them not lose hope."

Some of the remaining factory managers expressed reluctance to leave at their government's request, worried their assets will be seized by the North.

The association of South Korean companies at Kaesong estimates the financial loss to members from the suspension of production will exceed $2.5 billion.

Workers are concerned

The association's president, Han Jae-kwon, said factory owners are distraught by the course of events. Han said they want to ensure their equipment and materials remaining in the complex will be protected. And the association desires to see Seoul and Pyongyang engage in discussions so Kaesong can return to normal operations.

There is still a glimmer of hope the project can be revived. North Korea has not declared the zone to be permanently shut down. South Korea supplies the electricity and has not announced any plans to switch it off.

A power substation in the South sends electricity to a 100,000 kilowatt South Korean-built distribution center in Kaesong, which supplies the facilities there. North Korea is not able to generate sufficient electricity for its own needs.

South Korea's defense ministry says it and U.S. forces are closely monitoring the region to detect any signs of military movements by the North into Kaesong, which is 58 kilometers from the South Korean capital, Seoul.

South Korea and the U.S. on Monday concluded their eight-week military exercise on Monday, "Foal Eagle," which included B-2 stealth bomber flights and a nuclear attack submarine.

North Korea remains contrary

North Korea made repeated vociferous objections to the annual war games in the South. It characterized the drill as a prelude to an invasion, warning it was poised to conduct a preemptive nuclear strike on the United States and its bases in the Asia-Pacific region.

North Korea also said it was abrogating the 1953 truce that halted the three-year war on the peninsula. In addition, it declared that a "state of war" again existed with South Korea.

Despite the alarming rhetoric, the North has not made any further military provocations. But most military and intelligence analysts in Seoul and elsewhere expect North Korea, at some point, to conduct a fourth nuclear test and test-fire more medium or long-range missiles.

Such actions would further violate sanctions imposed on Pyongyang by the United Nations Security Council.

South Korea's presidential office and defense ministry on Monday both stated there are no indications the North has halted apparent preparations for a medium-range missile launch.