South Korea is confronting its first significant challenge to relations with North Korea since conservative President Lee Myung-bak was inaugurated, last month. North Korea has expelled most of the South Korean officials working at a joint industrial park in the North Korean city, Kaesong. VOA Seoul Correspondent Kurt Achin reports.
Thursday's pre-dawn expulsion of 11 South Korean officials from the Kaesong zone is not expected to have a serious impact on the zone's operations. However, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak called an emergency meeting to deal with what is being seen as a major symbolic rebuke to the South.
Following that meeting, Lee Dong-kwan, spokesman for President Lee, called the North's move "regrettable" and said it could impede North-South economic cooperation in the future. He says South Korea will do its best to prevent North-South relations from worsening, but that it will not alter its "pragmatic" approach toward the North.
The Kaesong industrial zone is one of the most visible symbols of inter-Korean cooperation fostered by two previous South Korean presidential administrations. More than 20,000 North Koreans work there as unskilled laborers for 69 South Korean manufacturers.
South Korean Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Ho-nyeon says the expulsion is in retaliation for President Lee's North Korea policies. He says the North is responding to a recent comment by South Korea's unification minister. The minister warned last week the Kaesong zone would not be expanded unless there is progress in multinational diplomacy to end North Korea's nuclear weapons program.
North Korea is nearly four months late in providing a complete declaration of its nuclear activities, which it promised by the end of 2007. There is no tangible indication yet of when, or whether, Pyongyang will produce the document.
President Lee's predecessors treated the Kaesong zone and other inter-Korean projects as separate from the nuclear negotiations. Even after North Korea tested a nuclear weapon in 2006, there was little change in plans for the zone.
Mr. Lee says future North-South cooperation, including humanitarian aid, is contingent on progress in the nuclear talks. He is also pressuring the North for action on its human rights abuses and on the alleged kidnapping hundreds of South Korean citizens.
Thursday's expulsion is the most aggressive challenge to the South's policies by the North since Mr. Lee took office, last month. Paik Hak-soon, senior analyst at the Sejong Institute in Seoul, says Pyongyang is operating from a position of insecurity. He says North Korea probably feels baffled, even embarassed, about South Korea's shift to a harder line policy and is lashing out, accordingly.
Thursday's expulsion had no apparent effect on working-level talks between the North and South at the border village, Panmunjeom. The two sides discussed potential energy assistance for the North, if the North cooperates in giving up its nuclear weapons capabilities.