| PAJU, South Korea, April 4
PAJU, South Korea, April 4 Hundreds of South
Koreans rejected the chance to leave factories in North Korea on
Thursday that have become the centre of a bitter standoff
between the two countries, running the risk of becoming hostages
to keep their plants going.
For those whose commute to work already involved a trip
across the world's most heavily fortified border and into one of
its most repressive states, this week's tensions were another
reminder of their precarious livelihoods.
It also showed how South Koreans have become largely inured
to threats from their impoverished and bellicose neighbour.
On Wednesday, Pyongyang barred access to the Kaesong
Industrial park, where 123 mostly small South Korean firms
employ 50,000 North Korean workers to make clothing, shoes and
"I have four dependents in my family. We didn't go there for
political reasons, we were there to make our living," said Kwon
Bo-sun, a 44-year-old trailer driver who was waiting at the
South Korean border town of Paju to see if he would be allowed
to truck supplies into the zone.
Pyongyang has allowed South Korean factory managers and
workers to leave Kaesong, about 5 km (3 miles) inside North
But out of 828 people who spent the night there just 222 had
indicated they wanted to return to South Korea on Thursday,
with the rest continuing to try to keep their factories running.
Many South Koreans waited all day on Thursday at Paju,
hoping to get in. Some expressed concern that a cut in gas
supplies would affect the operation of equipment at their
factories. One worker who returned asked reporters not to
sensationalise the standoff.
The companies are estimated to have invested around $500
million in the park since it was inaugurated in 2000.
South Korean corporate giants such as Samsung Electronics
and Hyundai Motor, the sort of companies
that could sustain losses from the park's closure, do not have
operations in Kaesong.
The North warned again on Thursday that it would close the
zone in reprisal for what it sees as "hostile" military
exercises by the United States and South Korea which have been
beefed up in response to Pyongyang's threats of war.
Many South Koreans are used to the rhetoric from North
Korea, which remains technically at war with both the South and
with the United States after an armistice rather than a peace
treaty ended the 1950-53 Korean conflict.
North Korea has now staged three nuclear weapons tests, the
most recent in February, which drew new sanctions from the
It shelled a South Korean island in 2010 and is blamed for
killing 46 South Korean sailors when a naval vessel was
torpedoed in the same year.
Pyongyang has in the past also launched commando raids,
tried to kill South Korean presidents, bombed an airliner and
killed South Korean government officials in a bombing overseas.
"It is true most people involved in Kaesong do not have that
sense of urgent risk to their personal safety," said a business
executive with operations there who declined to be identified
for fear his business could be affected.
KAESONG, A BAROMETER OF FAITH IN UNITED KOREA
The economic zone generates $2 billion a year in trade and
pays an average $130 a month in wages to North Koreans who might
otherwise struggle to find a job in an economy that has shrunk
over the past 20 years.
It is also practically the last vestige of the "Sunshine
Policy" of rapprochement between the two Koreas and a powerful
symbol that the divided country could one day reunify.
Even as North Korea's propaganda machine hurled more insults
at Seoul on Thursday, it appeared that a sense of solidarity
between Koreans in the zone was still holding.
"When food supplies come in from the North, (they are)
sharing some with the South Korean workers there," said Park
Yun-kyu, an executive.
Most food supplies are usually shipped in from South Korea,
which has not happened now for two days.
Other South Koreans who have been in the zone said North
Korean workers had been less friendly this week.
There were brief jitters in Seoul's financial markets when
one South Korean businessman said the North would close the zone
on April 10.
The South's Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean
relations, denied the reports and said the North wanted to be
told of scheduled plans for workers leaving over the next week.
"The North's request to several companies for a schedule of
people returning to the South by April 10 has been distorted to
say the North had requested a total pullout," the ministry said.
South Korea has had to submit a list of those wishing entry
to the complex three days in advance.
North Korea itself has not issued a statement on restricting
entry but on Thursday again threatened permanent closure if
Seoul continued to offend a country that bridles at even the
"If the South's puppet conservative group and its media
continue bad-mouthing ... we will be taking the stern measure of
pulling out all of our workers from the Kaesong industrial
zone," its KCNA news agency said.