North Korea blocked access to a key joint industrial zone with South Korea yesterday — a sharp escalation in a military crisis that Washington blamed on Pyongyang’s “reckless” behavior.
North Korea informed Seoul in the morning that it was stopping the daily movement of South Koreans into the Seoul-funded Kaesong complex — 10km inside the North side of the border.
However, it said that the 861 South Koreans currently in the zone were at liberty to leave.
Any move on Kaesong — established in 2004 and a crucial source of hard currency for North Korea — carries enormous significance.
Neither of the Koreas has allowed previous crises to significantly affect the complex, which is the only surviving example of inter-Korean cooperation and seen as a bellwether for stability on the Korean Peninsula.
The South Korean Ministry of Defense said it had contingency plans that included “military action” in case the safety of its citizens working there was threatened.
China, the North’s sole major ally, appealed for “calm” from all sides yesterday, repeating Beijing’s oft-declared position.
“Under the current circumstances, China believes that all parties should exercise calm and restraint,” Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Hong Lei (洪磊) said.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov said he was “worried” by the situation, saying even a simple human error could cause the crisis to spiral out of control.
Describing the Kaesong ban as “very regrettable,” South Korea’s Unification Ministry urged the North to normalize access “immediately.”
“Otherwise ... not only will inter-Korean relations be negatively affected, but North Korea will invoke greater criticism and isolation from the international community,” the ministry said in a statement.
It added that 33 South Koreans had returned from Kaesong, with hundreds staying on to keep their companies running.
US Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday denounced what he called the “unacceptable rhetoric” emanating from Pyongyang and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.