- The Washington Times - Monday, March 16, 2009

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA (AP) - Three days after shutting down the border, North Korea agreed to partially reopen the crossing Monday to let South Koreans stranded in a northern industrial zone head home, Seoul officials said.

But North Korea is not yet allowing South Koreans or cargo back across the border to the dozens of factories in Kaesong run by southern business managers, the South’s Unification Ministry said.

Hundreds of South Koreans working at factories in the border town were stuck in the North all weekend after officials shut the crossing Friday for the second time in a week amid heightened tensions on the peninsula.

North Korea has agreed to let some 450 South Koreans head home late Monday afternoon, Unification Ministry spokeswoman Lee Jong-joo said. That will leave about 270 South Koreans in Kaesong tonight, the ministry said. But more than 650 South Korean workers seeking to go to Kaesong on Monday were denied permission to cross the border, officials said.

The seemingly arbitrary border restrictions have unnerved South Korean business owners who run factories in Kaesong and rely on trucking in raw goods from the South into the impoverished North to produce everything from watches and shoes to kitchenware and electronic goods.

North Korea has provided no official explanation for refusing the Kaesong workers entry, but the border shutdowns are the latest in a series of moves by Pyongyang to back off reconciliation with the South.

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.

Relations had improved in recent years under two liberal presidents in Seoul, but have dramatically worsened since conservative President Lee Myung-bak took office a year ago. Most of the landmark, joint inter-Korean projects created during an earlier bloom in relations have been suspended since Pyongyang severely restricted border traffic in December.

Tensions have further intensified in recent weeks with the North announcing it will send a satellite into space _ a launch some fear will be a cover for testing its long-range missile technology _ and Seoul and Washington holding joint military exercises across the South.

Calling the annual drills preparation for war, Pyongyang cut off the last remaining communications hot line between the two Koreas last week, and prohibited border crossings. The North said the line will remain severed until the joint drills end March 20.

Kaesong’s factories have been allowed to operate with a skeleton South Korean staff, though workers and truckers need North Korean permission before they can cross the border. The more than 100 factories employing some 38,0000 North Koreans have been a key source of much-needed hard currency for the North.

But one South Korean working at footwear maker Samduk Stafild said by telephone from Kaesong that his factory is having trouble producing goods because of the lack of raw materials. He asked not to be named, saying he was not authorized to speak to the media.

North Korean officials let two South Koreans through the border over the weekend, including a woman scheduled to marry Sunday.

Seoul’s hard-line minister in charge of relations with Pyongyang, Hyun In-taek, met Sunday with Kaesong business officials. Company owners, meanwhile, pressed the North to normalize border traffic, saying the move had led to a “complete paralysis of business operations” in the complex.

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