Inter-Korean ties frozen with all channels cut

PHOTO: Reuters

The relationship between the two Koreas is plunging towards rock bottom as their joint industrial complex -- the last bastion of their reconciliation -- has turned into a military zone with all its communication channels severed.

Seoul and Pyongyang exchanged barbs, shifting the blame to one another for the closure of the factory park in the North's border city of Gaeseong. They are showing no signs of compromising to ease rising military tensions on the peninsula.

On Thursday, Pyongyang expelled all 280 South Korean workers from Gaeseong, effectively closing the complex that opened 12 years ago following the 2000 inter-Korean summit. It also froze all South Korean assets in the complex and declared it as a military off-limit zone.

This move came a day after Seoul decided to pull out of the complex as part of punitive measures following Pyongyang's recent nuclear and missile tests.

Seoul's Unification Minister Hong Yong-pyo rebuked Pyongyang for freezing South Korean properties, expressing displeasure over the communist regime's "wrongful" act.

"The South Korean government thinks that it is very regrettable for North Korea to have done such a wrongful act, and we would like to make it clear that the North should take all responsibility for things to come in the future," he told a press conference.

He also issued a "grave warning" against Pyongyang's decision to freeze South Korean assets in the Gaeseong complex and defended Seoul's decision to pull out as a "difficult one (made) for national security and people's safety."

"Our citizens' precious properties should never be harmed," Hong said.

The South has made investments into the complex, estimated to be worth some 1.02 trillion won (S$1.1 billion) A total of 124 South Korean companies hired some 55,000 North Koreans to produce some 60 billion won worth of products every month.

As the North turned the factory park into a military zone, expectations have risen that the North might deploy more military assets to Gaeseong, a move that could sharply raise military tensions near the heavily fortified border.

Before establishing the complex, areas in and around Gaeseong were militarized with four infantry regiments -- one artillery regiment, one armored battalion and one light infantry battalion -- among other military installations. Some observers have speculated that these units could be deployed again.

Bilateral tensions have led to the suspension of inter-Korean civilian projects.

Following Pyongyang's Jan. 6 nuclear test, cross-border programs such as a joint excavation of Manwoldae, a palace of the Goryeo Kingdom (B.C. 37 to A.D. 668) located in Gaesong, and a joint writing of a Korean dictionary, are to be suspended.

The severance of all bilateral communication lines is also expected to deepen inter-Korean enmity. It is the first time since the early 2000s that all civilian and government communication channels have been cut.

The Defence Ministry said that in case of a need to deliver a message to the North, the only possible way now will be through cross-border broadcasts. Some observers said that the two sides could also communicate through media outlets or via a third-party channel.

With military tensions and the absence of a stable dialogue apparatus, the Park Geun-hye administration's peninsular "trust-building" process has come to a halt. Seoul has long argued that it will leave the door open for dialogue with Pyongyang, while sternly dealing with the reclusive regime's military threats.

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