SEOUL - The administration of South Korean President Park Geun-hye announced Wednesday that it would suspend operations at the Kaesong industrial complex, thereby playing one of the few remaining cards at its disposal to heighten pressure on North Korea.
Halting work at the jointly operated facility is aimed at tightening the net around North Korea in co-operation with Japan and the United States. However, with exchanges severed between the two Koreas, tensions on the peninsula are certain to intensify.
South Korea had expanded exchanges and co-operation with North Korea since the days of the engagement policy championed by the 1998-2003 administration of President Kim Dae Jung. However, a project sending South Korean tourists to Mt. Kumgang in the North was suspended in 2008 after one tourist was shot dead by a North Korean soldier.
In 2010, Seoul imposed unilateral sanctions on Pyongyang, including the suspension of trade between the two Koreas, after North Korea allegedly sank a South Korean military patrol boat. Since then, the Kaesong complex has been the sole remaining active link between the two nations.
Even in the face of repeated provocations by North Korea, the Park administration was reluctant to halt work at Kaesong. After Pyongyang conducted its fourth nuclear test in January, for example, Seoul only restricted the entry of South Koreans to the complex. And even after the North launched a long-range ballistic missile this month, it merely reduced the number of South Korean workers there from 650 to 500.
In a statement issued Wednesday, South Korean Unification Minister Hong Yong Pyo explained the reasoning behind the decision to take bolder action. "At a time when the international community is seeking sanctions ... there is a need for [South] Korea, as a key party, to show leadership in taking part in these moves," Hong said.
Seoul might have been criticised by the international community if it continued to provide North Korea with foreign currency revenue through operation of the industrial complex.
However, some South Korean government officials remained hesitant to take this step. "If North Korea provokes us again, we'll have no way to retaliate," one government source said. Most of the South Korean companies operating in the Kaesong complex were small or midsize operations attracted by North Korea's cheap labour costs. The South Korean government might have to provide financial compensation to companies that used the complex, so the decision to shut Kaesong also comes at a significant cost to the South.
This decision also appears aimed at recovering Seoul's failed diplomatic policy of cozying up to China in the expectation it would use its influence to tame North Korea's behaviour. Concern that Pyongyang's nuclear test would galvanize calls in the South to possess nuclear arms of its own also was evident in Hong's statement.
"If left unattended, North Korea's nuclear and missile development ... could eventually even lead to a nuclear domino effect in northeast Asia," the statement warned. This was aimed at putting pressure on Beijing, which has been reluctant to impose tough sanctions on North Korea.
A backlash from Pyongyang is inevitable. Following the nuclear test in January, South Korea stepped up propaganda broadcasts sent across the border through large loudspeakers. On March 7, the "largest ever" joint US-South Korea military training exercise will start in the South. For the time being, it appears tensions on the Korean Peninsula will unavoidably be running high.