- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 17, 2009

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA (AP) - Closing a lucrative, symbolic joint economic enclave in North Korea is not an option despite Pyongyang’s recent moves to shut down the border, South Korea’s top Cabinet minister on North Korea said Wednesday.

The North Korean military severed the only communications hot line between the two Koreas and repeatedly has restricted workers and cargo from passing through the border to protest South Korean-U.S. military drills that began March 9 and will continue across the South through Friday.

North Korean officials fully opened the border Tuesday after four days of restrictions and was allowing workers passage Wednesday, South Korean officials said.

But the arbitrary border shutdowns have raised concerns about the future of the industrial complex in the North Korean border city of Kaesong, a joint venture considered a shining example of inter-Korean cooperation after decades of animosity and a lucrative source of hard currency for the communist regime.

“We are not considering shutting down” the Kaesong complex, Unification Minister Hyun In-taek told reporters.

Hyun warned the North against closing the border again after the military exercises end, saying Seoul would “take necessary steps” if people and cargo were blocked. He declined to elaborate.

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, has been allowed to operate with a skeleton South Korean staff that must seek permission from North Korean authorities before crossing the border for the zone.

South Korean firms that run some 100 factories rely on trucking in raw materials to produce the watches, shoes, kitchenware and electronic parts produced in the industrial complex.

Hyun renewed Seoul’s commitment to developing the inter-Korean project and cautioned Pyongyang against closing it, warning that the impoverished North would suffer huge economic losses if the factories cease to operate.

Last year, South Korean firms gave North Korean authorities $26.8 million in wages for some 38,000 North Korean employees, according to the Unification Ministry.

North Korea also is 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 it would violate a U.N. Security Council resolution and could draw further sanctions.

North Korea also said it would no longer accept U.S. food assistance and informed five groups distributing food aid that they must leave the country, U.S. officials said Tuesday.

The North gave no reason for refusing to accept U.S. food aid, State Department spokesman Robert Wood said in Washington, calling the rejection worrisome to aid workers and U.S. officials.

North Korea faces chronic food shortages and has relied on outside aid to help feed its 24 million people since famine reportedly killed as many as 2 million in the 1990s, a result of natural disasters and mismanagement.

___

Associated Press writer Foster Klug contributed to this report from Washington.

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