March 10, 2009 / 2:57 AM / 10 years ago

North Korea relents on crossing border to factory park

SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea on Tuesday allowed South Koreans back into a lucrative factory just across the border, a day after the reclusive state accused its neighbor and the United States of threatening war.

South Korean Navy warships are anchored at a sea off the Yeonpyeong Island near the western maritime border between the two Koreas, about 170 km (105 miles) west of Incheon International Airport, March 9, 2009. REUTERS/Lee Jae-Won

Officials had to exchange a note by hand on who would cross the border because the North on Monday cut off a military hotline — the usual method of communication — in anger at the start of annual military exercises by U.S. and South Korean troops near the heavily defended border until March 20.

“They are allowing the passage of our personnel and automobiles through the Military Demarcation Line,” the South’s Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Ho-nyeon said.

In recent months, the North has all but severed relations with the South, but it has so far left alone the South Korean-run Kaesong factory park, just across the border, and the one major source of foreign currency for the destitute country which also provides about 35,000 jobs.

The prickly North has turned increasingly strident in its rhetoric, putting its one-million-strong military on combat readiness over the exercises in the South and planning to launch a long-range missile in what several governments have said would be in contravention of U.N. sanctions.

Much of the anger has been focused on the conservative government in the South, which has made once free-flowing aid conditional on the North moving on pledges to stop trying to build nuclear weapons.

International talks on the nuclear issue have been stuck for months as Pyongyang and Washington argued over what procedures to use to check North Korea really was dismantling its nuclear capabilities.

The day that the cash-strapped North allowed South Korean factory managers back in was also pay day for the North Korean workers in Kaesong.

A company manager reached in Seoul denied the suggestion that the worker wages were the North’s motivation, but at least one company said it would not be paying wages on time this month because of Monday’s disruption in border traffic.

North Korean media kept up attacks on their neighbor with the official Rodong Sinmun saying the military drills were evidence of South Korean and U.S. intent to wage aggression.

“It is our resolute position and nature to answer the enemy’s hard-line stance with our extreme hard-line stance,” the daily said.

Tuesday’s resumption of border crossings into Kaesong means 80 South Koreans stranded there should be able to return, officials said.

The latest war of words came as the new U.S. special envoy for North Korea, Stephen Bosworth, was traveling to the region. He left Seoul on Tuesday to return to the United States.

North Korean Premier Kim Yong-il, a technocrat who heads the North’s administrative bureaucracy, will visit China on a goodwill visit on March 17-21, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said.

Additional reporting by Kim Junghyun in Seoul and Ian Ransom in Beijing; Editing by Jonathan Thatcher and David Fox

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