- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 17, 2009

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA (AP) - North Korea fully reopened its border Tuesday to South Koreans commuting to jobs at factories in a northern economic zone after four days of restrictions, South Korean officials said.

The crossing was closed twice in a week, stranding hundreds of South Koreans who work in Kaesong and keeping new deliveries of raw materials from factories in the industrial complex for days.

After partially opening the border Monday, the North Korean military relayed a letter Tuesday saying it would fully reopen the crossing to Kaesong workers, Unification Ministry spokeswoman Lee Jong-joo said in Seoul.

About 280 South Koreans crossed into Kaesong while 200 others returned home, and some 100 others chose to spend the night in the enclave, the ministry said.

North Korea has provided no explanation for the closures, which have unnerved business owners who rely on South Korean managers and raw materials for factories that employ some 38,000 North Korean workers just across the border.

But Pyongyang has been critical of Seoul’s decision to hold 12 days of joint military exercises with the U.S. at a time of heightened tension on the peninsula. As the drills got under way last Monday, the North’s military severed the only communications hot line between the Koreas and banned traffic across the border.

Relations between the two Koreas have steadily deteriorated since President Lee Myung-bak took office a year ago with a new, tough policy on Pyongyang. One by one, joint projects developed during the previous era of warming ties have been suspended.

The Kaesong complex _ the most prominent of the landmark inter-Korean projects and a lucrative source of hard currency for the impoverished North _ has been allowed to operate with a skeleton South Korean staff.

But the closures forced at least 10 companies halted operations, and many more warned they would be forced to close within days if the border restrictions were not eased, a Kaesong business association, the Corporate Council for the Gaesong Industrial Complex, said Monday.

North Korea is also locked in a standoff with the international community over its nuclear weapons program and its plans to launch a satellite into space next month. Some fear the launch will be a cover for testing long-range missile technology.

Regional powers have urged Pyongyang to refrain from carrying out any launch, noting that the launch would violate a U.N. Security Council resolution prohibiting the North from ballistic activity.

North Korea also recently began slowing work on disabling its nuclear facilities in an apparent protest of a delay in shipment of energy aid under an international deal, a South Korean Foreign Ministry official said Tuesday.

North Korea had been removing 15 spent fuel rods from its main nuclear complex at Yongbyon each day but recently dropped to 15 each week, said a South Korean Foreign Ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity, citing department policy.

Under a 2007 deal, North Korea agreed to disable the complex as a step toward its ultimate dismantlement in return for 1 million tons of fuel oil and other concessions from the U.S., South Korea, China, Russia and Japan.

More than 70 percent of the promised energy aid has been provided, but Pyongyang has complained the pace of energy shipments does not match that of its disabling work.

Meanwhile, near the border, South Korean activists and defectors from the North released 10 balloons filled with leaflets that urged North Koreans to rise up against autocratic leader Kim Jong Il and contained a taboo subject: Kim’s many alleged romantic relationships.

Their campaign is a major source of irritation to North Korea, which sees the leaflets as a violation of a 2004 inter-Korean agreement to end decades of propaganda warfare. Seoul says it cannot stop them, citing freedom of speech, but repeatedly has urged the campaigners to refrain from provoking the North.

The two Koreas technically remain at war because their three-year conflict ended in 1953 with an armistice, not a peace treaty. The Demilitarized Zone dividing the foes is one of the world’s most heavily armed.

___

Associated Press writers Kwang-tae Kim and Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul and Jin-man Lee in Imjingak contributed to this report.

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