Complex is seen as the only symbol of cooperation with South

North Korea on Monday said it would withdraw workers from the border Kaesong industrial complex that is run jointly with the South, in a move that has further escalated recently rising tensions between the neighbours.

In recent weeks, the continuing operation of the joint industrial complex — home to 123 South Korean companies and more than 50,000 North Korean workers — even amid increasingly heated rhetoric coming from the North, had been seen by analysts as an indication that the ongoing tensions were unlikely to spiral out of control despite the threats of launching attacks.

On Monday, however, a top North Korean official toured the complex and said it had “become impossible to operate the zone as usual due to the South Korean warmongers’ reckless acts”, the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported.

The official, Kim Yang-gon, Secretary of the Central Committee of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea, blamed “hostile acts” and “moves for a war” by the U.S. and South Korea for the decision, saying the fate of the complex, which lies close to the demilitarised zone, has been “put at stake” with “remarks slandering the dignity of the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea]”.

The decision to withdraw workers is set to escalate tensions, with the complex seen as the only symbol of cooperation between the neighbours. It remains unclear whether the move to withdraw workers is only a temporary one. With the complex emerging as an important source of income for the North, grappling with food shortages and a dire economy, a permanent closure is unlikely, analysts say.

Last week, the North restricted the entry of South Korean workers and cargo into the complex, a move the South Korean government described as “extremely regrettable”.

The decision followed a number of steps taken by the North in recent weeks that have strained ties, including withdrawing from an armistice agreement and disconnecting a military hotline with the South. The government said the moves were in retaliation for on-going military drills between the U.S. and the South.

While the South says the drills are a routine annual affair, the North Korean regime, under new leader Kim Jong-un, has responded with more than the usual anger, threatening to launch strikes against U.S. bases in South Korea and in Guam in the Pacific.

On Friday, the South Korean media said the North had moved medium-range missiles to its eastern coast. This followed a warning issued to foreign embassies in the capital Pyongyang to consider evacuation if tensions escalated.

Few embassies have, so far, appeared to take the warning seriously, viewing the North’s rhetoric as posturing aimed either at a domestic audience, possibly to consolidate the new leader’s support, or a calculated attempt to escalate tensions in order to subsequently acquire concessions from the West following sanctions that were imposed in February for a nuclear test.

‘No sign of test’

South Korean media outlets have speculated that the North may carry out a fourth nuclear test - a move that would bring further sanctions and further exacerbate regional tensions. The South Korean Defence Ministry, however, said on Monday there were no signs of a fourth nuclear test being imminent, as some media outlets in Seoul had claimed.

The ministry said satellite imagery showing the movement of personnel was “seen as normal activity”, the Seoul-based Yonhap news agency reported.

“Vehicles and personnel have showed movements near the southern tunnel at the Punggye-ri site, but they are seen as normal activities,” said spokesman Kim Min-seok. “Following the third nuclear test, we had explained that the North made both the western and southern tunnels ready for a nuclear test. The situation remains the same. If the North makes a decision, it could always carry out an atomic test.”

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