An official representing South Korean companies working at an enclave just inside North Korea says Pyongyang must stop blocking access to the site to South Korean workers within the next few days of the enterprise is to continue functioning.
“In my opinion, this week is the limit that we can possibly bear. If the ban is not lifted by next Monday, the situation would be deteriorated, which would lead to suspension of operation or a development that cannot be handled by us,” said Ok Sung-seok, vice-chairman of The Corporate Association of Kaesong Industrial Complex (CAKIC).
The group is an association of South Korean businesses operating in the Kaesong enclave.
Ok spoke with VOA’s Korean Service on Thursday by telephone from Seoul.
On Wednesday, the North barred South Korean workers from entering the complex, which is just north of the frontier separating the two nations. Pyongyang also allowed South Korean workers already in the Kaesong complex to return home.
The move is seen as a follow-up to the North’s threat last week to shut down the complex to protest what it said were South Korean insults. It did not specifically describe the alleged insults, but analysts in Seoul believe South Korean media reports suggesting that the North kept the complex open to earn hard currency might have angered Pyongyang.
According to South Korea’s Unification Ministry, as of Thursday over 200 South Korean workers had returned to the South, leaving more than 600 South Korean workers still in the complex.
Ok said most companies at Kaesong are still in operation despite the latest restrictions, though some are reporting shortage of supplies and some basic necessities.
“Food will be running out if the situation continues through next week and this will become a serious problem,” Ok said.
Ok added that the private companies are doing all they can to stay in operation, though three of them have suspended operations after running out of fuel.
Asked about the safety of workers still inside the complex, Ok said “as of now, there aren’t any problems.” He added that he was still able to communicate with workers at Kaesong using landline telephones assigned to the companies.
Earlier, the North cut off official communications channels with the South, including a military hotline that had been considered essential in operating the complex.
The Kaesong complex, located six miles north of the heavily fortified border, employs over 53,000 North Korean workers and is home to 123 South Korean businesses.
Ok said there were no “noticeable changes” in the North Korean workers’ attitudes toward the South Korean workers because of the latest development.
“It is pretty much the same before and now,” he said. “Also, there is no change in the atmosphere as well as any noticeable changes in attitudes of North Korean employees.”
The inter-Korean Kaesong complex is mainly funded by South Korea and has been the last remaining symbol of cooperation between the two nations, which are still technically at war.
The two sides agreed on building the complex in June of 2000 as part of an agreement from the first inter-Korean summit at the time. The complex has been producing various goods ranging from textiles to kitchen utensils since it began operations in 2004, with the equivalent of more than $90 billion in an accumulated output so far.
The North could lose more than $90 million a year in hard currency that it collects for the North Korean workers’ wages if Kaesong is shut down.
Ok called on both the North and South Korean governments to deal with the issue urgently and separately from inter-Korean politics.
“The Kaesong complex is not a place for politics. It is an industrial complex for entrepreneurs where they produce goods.”
Reported in Korean by Kim Hwan Yong for VOA Korean Service. Written in English by Jennifer Yoo