(by Evan Ramstad, WallStreetJournal.com) SEOUL — North Korea said Wednesday it will close its border with South Korea on Dec. 1, a step that would be its most hostile act yet after months of escalating criticism of Seoul’s decision to tie future economic assistance to arms reduction.
If the North follows through, the border closing would likely force the closure of the largest joint development project of the two countries, an industrial park where approximately 30,000 North Koreans work for South Korean firms.
South Korean government officials played down that prospect. They characterized the statement, made through North Korea’s state-run news agency, as just another in a series of criticisms and threats that turned strident this year following the election of a conservative politician, Lee Myung-bak, as president in the South.
The North has also expressed outrage at leaflets that North Korean defectors and other democracy activists in the South floated across the border by balloon in recent months. The leaflets criticize North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il, who is believed to have been incapacitated by illness since mid-August.
The South’s Unification Ministry, which is in charge of North Korean affairs, said Pyongyang hadn’t communicated directly on the border-closing prospect. “If the North carries it out, it would have a negative impact on what has been achieved in inter-Korean relations,” an agency spokesman said.
With the threat, North Korea appears ready to risk economic pain now in exchange for extracting more money from the South to re-open the border in the future, analysts said.
Jo Dong-ho, an economist at Ewha University who studies North Korean economics, says the gamble makes sense because North Korean leaders know that South Koreans want to preserve a connection between the two countries.
“If I am the president of South Korea, I cannot say I’m not interested in the improvement of inter-Korean relations,” Mr. Jo says. “Some day in the future, I would have to resume the dialogue. If North Korea closes now, then South Korea would have to give more to have the border open again.”
North Korea for years has used similar tactics to extract economic assistance from the U.S. and other countries that want to see it give up its pursuit of nuclear weapons.
After Mr. Lee took office earlier this year, South Korea conditioned the expansion of its economic projects in the North on progress that the North made in giving up nuclear weapons. That marked a sharp change from Mr. Lee’s immediate predecessor, Roh Moo-hyun, who promised to undertake billions of dollars worth of projects in the North with no strings attached.
For months, North Korea harshly criticized Mr. Lee as a “traitor” and “reckless.” Last week, North Korean military officials made a surprise visit to the industrial park built and operated by South Korean firms just inside North Korea. Among the questions the military officials asked, according to South Korean media, was how long would it take for the South Korean firms to leave.
Wednesday’s announcement appeared to come from North Korea’s military, which was referred to by the acronym KPA for Korea People’s Army. “We officially inform the south side that the actual crucial measure taken by the KPA to strictly restrict and cut off all the overland passages through the military demarcation line will take effect from Dec. 1,” the announcement said, using the North Korean custom of describing South Korea not as a country but as side of its own country that it doesn’t control.
For North Korea to carry out the plan, it would need to seal off only two crossing points through the two-mile wide demilitarized zone that has divided the countries since the Korean War ceasefire of 1953.
One on the east side of the peninsula goes to a mountain resort called Kumgang, which has been largely unused since July when a North Korean soldier shot and killed a South Korean tourist there.
The one on the west side of the peninsula goes to Kaesong, a North Korean city of about one million where South Korea in 2002 built an industrial park that is now used by about 70 small companies. The firms hire North Korean workers for wages of about $70 a month, a sizable portion of which goes to the North’s government.
South Korea has spent about $400 million dollars to build the industrial park. Companies in the park this year are expected to generate between $200 million and $300 million in economic output, a small fraction of South Korea’s nearly $1 trillion economy.
Write to Evan Ramstad at email@example.com.
1. a) Name the capitals of North and South Korea.
b) Name the former and current presidents of South Korea and the dictator of North Korea.
2. How would North Korea’s closing of its border with South Korea affect an industrial park where approximately 30,000 North Koreans work for South Korean firms?
3. How are South Korean government officials reacting to the announced border closings?
4. What have South Koreans done to anger the North Korean government?
5. The North Korean government profits from its citizens’ jobs at the industrial park. What is believed to be North Korea’s motive for closing the border (which would cut off that supply of funding to the North Korean government)?
from the CIA World FactBook:
Go to worldatlas.com for a map of Asia.
Read more about North Korea and South Korea at CIA World FactBook. (NOTE: Both countries are listed under Korea.)