Pyongyang blocking exit of South Koreans from Kaesong? Update: Most released

Yesterday, South Korea announced that it would pull out the last 50 workers in the Kaesong joint industrial plant, after North Korea refused to discuss conditions for reopening the facility:

South Korea is preparing to pull out its last remaining nationals from a shuttered factory park in North Korea and empty out the complex for the first time since its 2004 opening.

The withdrawal of the 50 South Koreans would also raise a serious question about the future of the Kaesong complex, the last symbol of inter-Korean rapprochement.

Today, however, that withdrawal hit a snag.  North Korea has refused for the moment to allow the South Koreans to return — and have kept them in meetings for at least four hours:

North Korea delayed the departure of the last South Korean personnel from a joint industrial complex on Monday by not immediately giving them permission to return home across the two countries’ border, South Korean officials said.

Officials from South Korea’s Unification Ministry said North Korean officials had been meeting with the personnel for nearly four hours, but that the ministry still hoped that all 50 remaining South Koreans could be withdrawn on Monday.

Their departure would empty out the complex, located on the North Korean side of the border, for the first time since it opened in 2004 and possibly lead to the permanent closure of the last symbol of inter-Korean cooperation.

Two ministry officials refused to disclose what issues were being discussed at the meeting and said it was unclear when the South Koreans would be able to leave. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

Four hours?  I’ve been in exit interviews that seemed interminable before, but never any that even felt like four hours long.  Perhaps Pyongyang sees the folly of shutting down one of their few sources for hard currency, but this may poison the well for any future joint operations in DPRK territory.  If the Kim regime takes hostages, even for a short period of time, don’t expect Seoul to ever send any workers north of the 38th Parallel again.

USA Today says this gamesmanship is all for the benefit of gaining the attention of the US:

The closure of Kaesong “is very, very unfortunate. It was the last connection between North and South Korea,” said Ahn Yin-hay, an international studies professor at Korea University in Seoul. Since the complex began operations in 2004, Kaesong had weathered several storms in relations between North and South, she said. “It had stayed safe, but now it is like a game of chicken between North and South Korea,” said Ahn. If the closure continues, the North may declare the factory zone North Korean property, as it did with the Kumgang operation, she said.

Pyongyang is using the complex to pressure Washington to the negotiating table, to talk about the Armistice agreement and other issues, said Ahn. Economically, Kaesong “was really worthwhile for North Korea”, but when it wants dialogue North Korea delivers “a strong stance and a very strong signal,” she said, as shown in recent months by its third nuclear test, its declaration of the end of the armistice agreement, and the closure of Kaesong.

“This is all connected, and now they have an American hostage,” said Ahn. On Saturday, the North’s official news agency KCNA said a US citizen would soon be tried on charges of attempting to overthrow the North Korean government. Pae Jun-ho, known in the US as Kenneth Bae, has been held since last year in North Korea after entering as a tourist. Under North Korea’s criminal code, Bae could face the death penalty.

I don’t think the US is all that interested in Kaesong except as an indicator of how bad tensions have gotten on the peninsula.  Bae is another matter entirely.  The last time this happened, Bill Clinton flew to Pyongyang and opened another round of short-lived diplomacy.  Maybe this time, Obama will send Hillary for the inevitable release and climbdown Kim Jong-un needs.

Update: Looks like even Pyongyang can figure out what kind of bad press this was going to generate, although they’re still keeping seven around for what looks like … ransom:

North Korea allowed the withdrawal Monday of most of the remaining South Korean personnel at a jointly-run industrial park in the North, South Korean officials said, with the final seven staying behind to negotiate unpaid wages for North Korean workers.

Officials in Seoul said 43 South Koreans returned Monday night, and the last seven would leave the industrial complex after the talks with North Korean officials finished. It wasn’t immediately clear, however, whether they would leave Monday night or later.

The departure would empty out the complex, located just across the border in the North Korean town of Kaesong, for the first time since it opened in 2004 and possibly lead to the permanent closure of the last symbol of inter-Korean cooperation.

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David Strom 8:31 PM on November 29, 2022