- Associated Press - Saturday, May 4, 2013

PAJU, South Korea — The last seven South Koreans stationed at a jointly run factory park in North Korea pulled out Friday, silencing the complex for the first time since it was launched nine years ago in a seemingly distant era of reconciliation.

The complex in the town of Kaesong, just north of the Koreas’ heavily fortified border, was the rivals’ only remaining symbol of rapprochement. It had employed more than 53,000 North Korean workers and hundreds of South Korean managers until last month, when Pyongyang started gradually blocking its operations.

The last seven South Koreans left after negotiating taxes and the back salaries of North Korean workers. Their departure leaves the Koreas with virtually no official communication channel.

It also could spell the end of an experiment that many saw as a bridge between the divided Koreas that was meant to help pave the way for a future unified Korea by proving that workers from two polar opposite economic systems could collaborate. Through both liberal and conservative governments in Seoul, Kaesong survived past tensions, including attacks blamed on North Korea in 2010 that killed 50 South Koreans.

A former South Korean official who headed the group that negotiated with the North on wages said he repeatedly called for the resumption of operations at Kaesong during the talks. Hong Yang-ho told reporters he expected future discussions but didn’t elaborate.

The withdrawal removes one of the last points of contact between the Koreas, which are still technically in a state of war because the 1950-53 Korean War ended with a cease-fire, not a peace treaty. Seoul had used phone lines connected to a South Korean-run management office at Kaesong to exchange messages with North Korea.

Some analysts said the pullout worsens already serious mistrust between Seoul and Pyongyang and raises long-term fears that a miscalculation could lead to armed conflict if the rivals can’t improve ties.

Two vehicles carrying $13 million in U.S. dollars — to cover wages for the North Korean workers and taxes — crossed the border at around the time the seven South Koreans returned, according to Seoul’s Unification Ministry, which is responsible for ties between the rivals. The South Koreans delivering the money have returned.

As tensions between the countries soared early last month, North Korea suspended operations at Kaesong, barring South Korean factory managers and trucks carrying supplies from entering the park. It later withdrew the North Koreans working at 123 South Korean companies in Kaesong’s special economic zone.