SEOUL – Pyongyang told Seoul on Wednesday that it was banning access to their Kaesong joint industrial park, but said South Koreans in the complex would be allowed to leave, officials said.
“The North this morning notified us that it will only allow returning trips from Kaesong and will ban trips to the complex,” Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Hyung Suk told reporters.
Kim said the North had not specified how long the ban would remain in effect.
Describing the North’s move as “very regrettable,” Kim said his government’s first priority was the safety of the estimated 861 of its citizens currently in Kaesong.
“We expect our people currently in the North to return safely,” he said.
The industrial complex, which lies 10 km inside the North, was established in 2004 as a symbol of cross-border cooperation.
The Kaesong industrial complex is a crucial source of hard currency for the regime in Pyongyang and seen as a bellwether of inter-Korean relations, beyond all the military rhetoric that regularly flies across the border.
The latest North Korean move fitted into a cycle of escalating tensions that prompted U.N. chief Ban Ki Moon to warn Tuesday that the situation had “gone too far” as the U.S. vowed to defend itself and regional ally South Korea.
The last time the border crossing was blocked was March 2009 in protest at a major U.S.-South Korean military exercise. It reopened a day later.
Tensions have been soaring on the Korean Peninsula since February since the North conducted its third nuclear test, having launched a long-range rocket in December.
In a rare show of force in the region, Washington has deployed nuclear-capable B-52s, B-2 stealth bombers and two destroyers to South Korean air and sea space.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, standing side-by-side with his South Korean counterpart, Foreign Minister Yun Byung Se, denounced Tuesday an “extraordinary amount of unacceptable rhetoric” from North Korea in recent days.
“Let me be perfectly clear here today: The United States will defend and protect ourselves and our treaty ally, the Republic of Korea,” Kerry said.
He was speaking after the North triggered renewed alarm by warning it would reopen its mothballed Yongbyon reactor — its source of weapons-grade plutonium.
The recent posturing by new North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was “dangerous and reckless,” Kerry said.
Earlier, Ban had warned the situation was veering out of control and stressed that “nuclear threats are not a game.”
“The current crisis has already gone too far. . . . Things must begin to calm down,” the former South Korean foreign minister said, adding that negotiations were the only viable way forward.
The North shut down the Yongbyon reactor in July 2007 under a six-nation aid-for-disarmament accord, and destroyed its cooling tower a year later.
Experts say it would take six months to get the reactor back up and running, after which it would be able to produce one bomb’s worth of weapons-grade plutonium a year.
North Korea revealed it was enriching uranium at Yongbyon in 2010 when it allowed foreign experts to visit the centrifuge facility there, but insisted it was low-level enrichment for energy purposes.
The North has substantial uranium ore deposits which provide a quick route to boosting reserves of fissile material, while plutonium has the advantage of being easier to miniaturize into a deliverable nuclear warhead.
Many observers believe the North has been producing highly enriched uranium in secret facilities for years, and that the third nuclear test it conducted in February may have been of a uranium bomb.
Its previous tests in 2006 and 2009 were both of plutonium devices.