SEOUL, South Korea -- The last South Korean workers at an industrial zone jointly run with North Korea left the complex yesterday, bringing activities to a halt for the first time since the park opened nearly a decade ago.
All seven workers returned to South Korea, Unification Ministry spokeswoman Park Soo-Jin said by phone. North Korea had prevented them from leaving the Kaesong complex earlier this week due to a dispute over unpaid wages and bills.
The withdrawal severs one of the last channels of inter-Korean contact and shutters a plant that has been an important source of income for the North. It comes amid weeks of tension on the Korean peninsula since Kim Jong Un's regime in February conducted an atomic test and threatened pre-emptive nuclear strikes against its enemies.
"The very existence of Kaesong used to ease the political tension between the two Koreas, so shutting it down even temporarily means higher geopolitical risk," Cho Bong-Hyun, a research fellow at IBK Economic Research Institute, said.
North Korea recalled all of its workers from the factory park on April 8 to protest U.S. and South Korean joint annual military drills, which concluded this week. The decision by South Korean president Park Geun-hye to withdraw workers was "inevitable" after North Korea refused to hold talks over the facility, Unification Ministry officials have said.
Kaesong has remained open during previous periods of tension.