Tensions grow around North Korea

A significant line has been crossed in the increasingly tense North Korean standoff, as the shared industrial complex at Kaesong is closed for the very first time.  The UK Telegraph reports this prompted China to clear its throat:

China has intervened in the deepening Korea crisis by summoning the ambassadors of North and South Korea, as well as the United States, to warn tensions must be defused on the Korean peninsula.

The abrupt set of exchanges came after Pyongyang shut down the last shared link with the South by refusing entry to almost 500 South Korean workers who work in a cross-border industrial park.

Zhang Yesui, the deputy foreign minister, outlined Beijing’s “serious concern about the present situation”, and added that it expects the escalation of tension to cease.

“All sides must remain calm and exercise restraint and not take actions which are mutually provocative and must certainly not take actions which will worsen the situation,” said the Foreign ministry.

The Kaesong complex lies six miles inside North Korea and houses 123 South Korean companies and their 53,000 North Korean workers.

A key source of foreign currency for Pyongyang, generating some $100 million (£66 million) each year, it has never been closed, weathering the aftermath of the 2009 nuclear tests and the shelling of Yongpyeong island the following year.

It has been common for those observing the Korean crisis to seek reassurance in the continued operation of the Kaesong facility.  As long as that was still up and running, things couldn’t be so bad.  But now the Norks are turning South Korean workers away.

There are still over 800 South Korean workers at Kaesong, and they’re trying to remain upbeat about the situation… but if the North Koreans try to prevent them from leaving, things could get ugly fast:

“Our workers are on standby to return,” said the boss of one factory on the site, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of offending North Korea. “If the situation continues, however, our business will be affected. I am afraid buyers will worry [that our goods will not come out of Kaesong],” he added.

Kim Kwan-jin, Seoul’s Defence chief, said if hostages were taken at the site, South Korea would consider military action to free them.

The army has practised an annual drill, called Ulchi Freedom Guardian to free hostages, according to Yonhap, the South Korean news agency.

“Special forces will conduct the operation along with military and government officials in case of crisis,” a military official told Yonhap.

Incidentally, NPR notes that North Koreans regard work at Kaesong as among the best jobs to be had in their Communist deathtrap of a country.  About 55,000 of them work in the area, making clothes, car parts, and semiconductors… and earning about $62 a month.

The Norks also announced they would reverse one of the few meaningful concessions to nuclear non-proliferation they ever made, by restarting the Yongbyon reactor, mothballed in 2007.   Administration officials are treating this as more bluster, although the top American commander on the ground, General James D. Thurman, describes the situation as “tense” and “volatile.”  China seems to think so, too, because there are reports of hardware and military personnel moving around on the North Korean border.  And, having given Kim Jong Un’s forces a peek at our B-2 stealth bombers, American forces have decided to show them what an F-22 Raptor can do.

The situation at Kaesong bears close scrutiny.  Shutting it down completely for any length of time would be rough on the large number of North Koreans who work there, and could permanently break cooperative ties with South Korean industry, which can’t sit around forever waiting for the gates to re-open.  It already seems as if the situation has deteriorated beyond the many previous North Korean standoffs, and no one is quite certain where the point of no return lies.

Update: For whatever it’s worth, at roughly 3:30 PM Eastern time, Agence France-Presse reported through their Twitter account: