PAJU, South Korea (AP) — North Korea on Thursday ordered a military takeover of a factory park that had been the last major symbol of cooperation with South Korea, saying Seoul's earlier suspension of operations at the jointly run facility as punishment for the North's recent rocket launch was a "dangerous declaration of war."
North Korea said it was responding to Seoul's shutdown order by immediately deporting the hundreds of South Koreans who work at the complex just across the world's most heavily armed border in the city of Kaesong, pulling out the tens of thousands of North Korean employees and freezing all South Korean assets. The North also said it was shutting down two crucial cross-border communication hotlines.
An immediate worry in Seoul was whether all South Korean workers would be allowed to leave. Some analysts speculated that the North would hold onto some to get all the wages owed North Korean workers.
The North's moves significantly raised the stakes in a standoff that began with North Korea's nuclear test last month, followed by a long-range rocket launch on Sunday that outsiders see as a banned test of ballistic missile technology. South Korea responded Thursday by beginning work to suspend operations at the factory park, one of its harshest possible punishment options.
Some South Korean workers left Kaesong before North Korea's announcement, and a handful of others were seen leaving afterward, but South Korean officials didn't know what would happen to its nationals who had not departed by North Korea's 5:30 p.m. (Seoul time) expulsion deadline; they also didn't how many workers remained at the factories. South Korea said it would ban reporters from the border crossing on Friday.
Well after the deadline passed, a South Korean manager at Kaesong told The Associated Press by phone that he had been instructed to wait for further instructions from South Korean officials.
The manager at a South Korean apparel company at the complex, who declined to give his name, said he and one other South Korean at his company were waiting in an office for word about when they could leave. The man, who said he'd worked at Kaesong for about 10 years, said he was not sure whether he would return to the South on Thursday. He said he did not see any North Korean officials and did not know whether other South Koreans were there.
"I was told not to bring anything but personal goods, so I've got nothing but my clothes to take back," the man said, adding that he wasn't worried about being taken hostage.
The South's Unification Ministry, which is responsible for ties with the North, said Thursday evening that nearly 250 South Koreans had crossed the border into the Kaesong park to begin shutdown work, in addition to some who were already there. It said more than 140 returned to the South but the total of how many were still there wasn't clear.
South Korea's Yonhap news agency, citing an unidentified military official, reported that South Korea bolstered its military readiness and strength along the western portion of the border in the event of a North Korean provocation. The report didn't elaborate on what that meant, and Seoul's Defense Ministry said it couldn't confirm the report.
North Korea's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea said in a statement that the South's shutdown of Kaesong was a "dangerous declaration of war" and a "declaration of an end to the last lifeline of the North-South relations." Such over-the-top rhetoric is typical of the North's propaganda, but the country appeared to be backing up its language with its strong response.
North Korea, in its statement, also issued crude insults against South Korean President Park Geun-hye, saying she masterminded the shutdown and calling her a "confrontational wicked woman" who lives upon "the groin of her American boss." Such sexist language is also typical of North Korean propaganda.
North Korea has previously cut off cross-border communication channels in times of tension with South Korea, but they were later restored after animosities eased.
Seoul said its decision on Kaesong was an effort to stop North Korea from using hard currency earned from the park to develop its nuclear and missile programs.
Earlier Thursday, along the South Korean side of the border, a stream of large white trucks lined up before crossing into North Korea, presumably to bring back products and gear from the factories.
Yoon Sang-eun, a South Korean driver for a firm at the factory park, said that if Kaesong "stops operating, companies like us almost have to close off business. It is difficult."
North Korea, in a fit of anger over U.S.-South Korean military drills, pulled its workers from Kaesong for about five months in 2013. But, generally, the complex has long been seen as above the constant squabbling and occasional bloodshed between the rival Koreas, one of the last few bright spots in a relationship more often marked by threats of war.
Park, the South Korean president, has now done something her conservative predecessor resisted, even after two attacks blamed on North Korea killed 50 South Koreans in 2010. She has shown a willingness to take quick action when provoked by the North. When North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test last month, for instance, she resumed anti-Pyongyang propaganda from loudspeakers along the border, despite what Seoul says was an exchange of cross-border artillery fire the last time she used the speakers.
The factory park, which started producing goods in 2004, has provided 616 billion won ($560 million) of cash to North Korea, South Korean Unification Minister Hong Yong-pyo said.
Combining South Korean initiative, capital and technology with the North's cheap labor, the industrial park has been seen as a test case for reunification between the Koreas. Last year, 124 South Korean companies hired 54,000 North Korean workers to produce socks, wristwatches and other goods worth about $500 million.
South Korean businesses with factories at the park reacted with a mixture of disappointment and anger. In a statement, the association of South Korean companies in Kaesong denounced the government's decision as "entirely incomprehensible and unjust."
The park also allowed people from both Koreas to interact with each other and glimpse into lives on the other side of the border. Some South Korean snacks have become popular among North Korean workers.
Associated Press writers Hyung-jin Kim, Youkyung Lee and Foster Klug in Seoul, South Korea, contributed to this report.