North Korea has eased border restrictions to South Korea, allowing hundreds of South Korean managers to return home from a joint industrial zone. However, analysts say Pyongyang's refusal to allow a normal flow of traffic is raising serious questions about the project's future.
South Korean Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Ho-nyoun confirmed Monday North Korea had allowed several hundred citizens of the South to return from the North Korean city, Kaesong. He says, up to now, there have been 761 South Koreans in Kaesong. After today's return, he says, 441 South Koreans are left there.
Those South Koreans have been stranded since Friday, when North Korea sealed its border for the second time in a week, without explanation. Earlier in the week, Pyongyang severed a military communications line used to coordinate limited-but-frequent crossings to and from Kaesong's joint North-South industrial zone.
So far, North Korea is only allowing traffic out of the zone. South Korean people and supplies scheduled to cross into the North are still not being allowed.
These are the latest in a series of North Korean steps that raise questions about the Kaesong zone's future. South Korea pays for and sends personnel to manage the zone, which was once widely seen as a successful centerpiece of engagement between the two sides. It employs about 38,000 North Korean workers who manufacture basic products like cosmetics, apparel and housewares for South Korean companies.
However, North Korea has steadily scaled back operations at the zone since last year's inauguration of conservative South Korean President Lee Myung-bak. Pyongyang labels Mr. Lee as a "traitor" for his insistence that South Korean aid and investment be contingent on progress in opening up the North and ending its nuclear weapons program.
Ryoo Kihl-jae is a dean of Kyungnam University's Graduate School of North Korean Studies, here in Seoul. He says North Korea is restricting the zone to make a political point.
He says North Korea is trying to link questions of sustainability of the Kaesong zone with President Lee's policies. He says Pyongyang wants to change South Korean policy more than it wants the money the Kaesong zone provides. Ryoo says, if it cannot change South Korean policies, North Korea is likely to close the zone.
VOA spoke Monday to a member of the Kaesong zone's South Korean staff, who prefers to remain unnamed. He says North Korea's actions are creating problems in the Kaesong supply chain.
He says the Kaesong factories do not have enough raw materials in stock to keep making products. He says, if North Korea refuses access from the South for more than a week, production may grind to a halt.
Brian Myers is a professor at Busan's Dongseo University who specializes in North Korean politics. He says the South Korean prosperity on display in the Kaesong zone is a threat to the North Korean propaganda image of the South as a miserable place of poverty.
"Having a constant influx of South Korean people and South Korean ideas flow into North Korea is beginning to outweigh the economic benefits of the complex," said Myers. "So I think there are perhaps forces inside the North Korean regime that really want to see this complex closed down altogether."
Myers and other analysts say North Korea has already done critical damage to the Kaesong zone's credibility among investors in South Korea and beyond.