SEOUL, South Korea -- North Korea said on Monday that it was withdrawing all its 53,000 workers from an industrial park jointly run with South Korea, casting doubt on the future of the last remaining symbol of inter-Korean reconciliation.
The Kaesong industrial complex, in the North Korean border town of the same name, operated for eight years despite political and military tension, including the North's artillery attack on a South Korean island three years ago. Although North Korea called the move temporary, the nation's decision to withdraw its workers presented the most serious challenge to its viability.
North Korea "will temporarily suspend the operations in the zone and examine the issue of whether it will allow its existence or close it," the country's official Korean Central News Agency quoted Kim Yang Gon, a secretary of the Central Committee of the North's ruling Workers' Party of Korea, as saying after visiting Kaesong on Monday. The North's final decision will depend on the Seoul government's attitude, he said, making clear that Pyongyang was using the factory park's future to pressure Seoul for political concessions.
South Koreans had hoped that the North's growing dependence on the complex as an important source of hard currency would provide Seoul with leverage on the North's recalcitrant leadership and a possible buffer against military conflict. But the North's decision Monday indicated that Pyongyang was subordinating financial gains to political and military priorities in the crisis, analysts said.
Hours earlier, South Korea said it had no intention of talking with North Korea. Doing so amid a torrent of North Korean threats to attack Seoul and the United States with nuclear weapons would be tantamount to capitulation and would only embolden the North's brinkmanship, officials in Seoul said.
"If the Kaesong project is stopped, and we have to pull our workers completely, it will be a tremendous setback to South-North relations," Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae of South Korea said during a parliamentary hearing.
North Korea has blocked South Korean managers and cargo trucks from crossing the heavily armed border to Kaesong for six days to protest United Nations sanctions and joint military drills that the United States and South Korea are conducting on the Korean Peninsula.
The blockade quickly dried up the fuel, food and raw materials for 123 South Korean factories there, forcing 20 of them to stop operating as of Monday, even before the North's decision to pull out its workers.
More than 470 South Koreans remained in Kaesong on Monday, hoping that the North would lift the blockade. Long lines of South Korean trucks loaded with supplies for the Kaesong factories were stalled at the border on Monday, waiting in vain for the North to let them cross.
For nearly a decade, the complex, where South Korean factories hired North Korean workers and the North's Communist authorities experienced the first taste of South Korean capitalism, has been held up as a test case for how reunification of the two Koreas might look. The factories, near the western edge of the border, produced $470 million worth of textiles and other labor-intensive products last year.
As relations deteriorated in recent years, however, the factory park has also become controversial in South Korea. Some conservative South Koreans argued that the complex, which generates $90 million a year in wages for the 53,000 North Koreans employed there, helped undermine the impact of U.N. sanctions by extending a lifeline to the North Korean government, which the South blamed for the island attack and the 2010 sinking of a South Korean warship that killed 46 sailors.