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Factories that ran on Korean cooperation go silent

Tuesday - 4/9/2013, 4:29pm  ET

A South Korean vehicle carrying boxes, returning from the North Korean city of Kaesong arrives at the customs, immigration and quarantine office near the border village of Panmunjom, which has separated the two Koreas since the Korean War, in Paju, north of Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, April 9, 2013. North Korean workers didn't show up for work at the Kaesong industrial complex, a jointly run factory with South Korea on Tuesday, a day after Pyongyang suspended operations at the last remaining major economic link between rivals locked in an increasingly hostile relationship. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

KIM YONG-HO
Associated Press

PAJU, South Korea (AP) -- A few hundred South Korean managers, some wandering among quiet assembly lines, were all that remained Tuesday at the massive industrial park run by the rival Koreas after North Korea pulled its more than 50,000 workers from the complex. Other managers stuffed their cars full of finished goods before heading south across the Demilitarized Zone that divides the nations.

Amid a stream of increasingly threatening words and actions, North Korea announced on Monday that it was suspending operations and recalling all of its workers from the Kaesong industrial complex, a factory park just inside North Korea's heavily armed border that pairs cheap local labor with South Korean know-how and pumped out about half a billion dollars' worth of goods last year.

It was the first time that production has been suspended at the complex, which for nearly a decade has been a tenuous but persistent symbol of cooperation in a relationship that now seems at rock bottom.

On Tuesday, the roads leading to Kaesong, the North's third biggest city, were empty of the normal line of cargo trucks and vehicles carrying supplies and people. Inside the complex, a couple of North Korean soldiers, clad in olive green uniforms and riding Chinese motorcycles, patrolled streets that on a normal weekday would have been choked with buses and workers.

A South Korean manager, one of about 400 who remained at Kaesong, said he had been sitting in an unheated office most of the day with four colleagues. Normally, they would be busy checking orders and examining the clothes they produce. But with no work and no television or radio, the manager said they did nothing but "think about the South."

"I feel hungry and cold here," he said as a soft drizzle fell on Kaesong.

Gas and oil is typically sent from the South to keep the heat flowing and the factories churning, but North Korea has closed the border to all workers and goods bound for Kaesong.

"We can't work in Kaesong anymore," he said, declining to be identified because of company rules. "I don't have any good memories left."

The five will share two cars and drive across the border Wednesday.

The pull-out is part of a torrent of provocations and threats North Korea has unleashed at Seoul and Washington in recent weeks. The North is angry at U.N. sanctions punishing it for its third nuclear test on Feb. 12, as well as joint military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea that the allies call routine but that Pyongyang sees as preparation for an invasion.

In what's seen as the latest attempt to stoke fear, North Korea on Tuesday urged all foreign companies and tourists in South Korea to evacuate because it says the rival Koreas are on the verge of nuclear war. Analysts see a direct attack on Seoul as extremely unlikely, and U.S. and South Korean defense officials have said they've seen nothing to indicate that Pyongyang is preparing for a major military action.

Pyongyang announced Monday that it was recalling all North Korean workers from Kaesong and would decide later whether to shut it down for good. Shutting it permanently would sacrifice jobs in a poverty-stricken nation that according to the U.S. State Department has a per capita GDP of just $1,800 per year.

Even the suspension is costing North Korea money, and not just in the short term. The pull-out has left South Korean companies unable to fill orders, raised fears of bankruptcies and is likely to make others think twice about investing in North Korea.

"I deeply regret having entered Kaesong," Yoo Byung-ki, president of BK Electronics Co., said from Seoul. He said both North and South Korea hurt companies in the jointly run complex whenever the countries' relationship went sour.

"All orders got canceled. My clients must be worried. Even if they give us new orders, they will not give us all the orders they used to give," said Yoo, whose company supplies electronic components to consumer electronics companies.

South Korean President Park Geun-hye expressed disappointment at the suspension of operations at Kaesong, and echoed the warning that it would only scare foreign investors away from North Korea.

"North Korea should stop doing wrong behavior and make a right choice for the future of the Korean nation," Park said at the start of a regular Cabinet Council meeting, according to a South Korean media pool report posted on her office's website.

For South Korea, Kaesong's significance goes beyond money. It is the last symbol of inter-Korean cooperation. Other projects from previous eras of cooperation such as reunions of families separated by war and tours to a scenic North Korean mountain stopped in recent years.

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