South Korea to pull all workers from jointly-run Kaesong industrial complex

Visitors look at products made at Kaesong industrial complex in North Korea, displayed at the unification observation post in Paju near the border in South Korea, April 25, 2013. AP

Updated at 5:32 a.m. Eastern

SEOUL, South Korea Seoul decided Friday to withdraw the roughly 175 South Koreans still at a jointly run factory complex in North Korea.

The statement Friday by the country's minister in charge of inter-Korean relations raised a major question about the future of the last major symbol of inter-Korean cooperation.

Seoul's announcement came hours after North Korea rejected a South Korean demand for talks on the factory park that has been closed for nearly a month. Seoul said it was worried about its workers not having access to food and medicine.

Pyongyang's powerful National Defense Commission earlier said Seoul's demand for working-level talks was deceptive and similar future demands would "only speed up final destruction" of South Korea.

An unidentified spokesman for the Commission said in a statement carried by state media that North Korea would guarantee the safety of South Koreans if they decide to leave Kaesong. He also referred to ongoing U.S.-South Korean military drills and the spreading of anti-North Korea leaflets at the border as proof of Seoul's insincerity.

If the South's puppet group looks away from reality and pursues the worsening of the situation, we will be compelled to first take final and decisive grave measures," the statement said.

CBS

The dueling threats followed a lull in what had been a weeks-long period of rising hostility that saw North Korea unleashing threats of war at Washington and Seoul over joint military drills that the allies call routine and over U.N. sanctions meant to penalize Pyongyang over a nuclear test in February.

Pyongyang has recently eased its rhetoric and expressed some tentative signs of interest in dialogue, though its demands, including dismantling all U.S. nuclear weapons, go far beyond what its adversaries will accept.

Meanwhile, the military drills continue. On Friday, airplanes flew over South Korea's southeastern city of Pohang and amphibious vessels landed on the coast. North Korea calls the drills, which are set to end Tuesday, war preparations.

"Even at this moment, South Korea is ramping up the intensity of coastal landing drills with the United States in the east, driving the already tense situation to a point of explosion," North Korea said in its statement. It said the annual drills belie South Korea's calls for talks.

The Kaesong complex has operated with South Korean know-how and technology and with cheap labor from North Korea since 2004. It weathered past cycles of hostility between the rivals, including two attacks blamed on North Korea in 2010 that killed 50 South Koreans.

Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Hyung-suk, speaking ahead of North Korea's statement, said Friday that Seoul would "take appropriate measures at an appropriate time" but would not elaborate. He said South Korea wanted to restore normal operations at Kaesong.

Impoverished North Korea objects to views in South Korea that the park is a source of badly needed hard currency. South Korean companies paid salaries to North Korean workers averaging $127 a month, according to South Korea's government. That is less than one-sixteenth of the average salary of South Korean manufacturer workers.

Pyongyang also has complained about alleged South Korean military plans in the event the North held the Kaesong managers hostage.

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