North Korea rejects Seoul deadline for talks

April 26, 2013
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FILE - In this June 22, 2006 file photo, North Koreans work at a factory of South Korean apparel maker Shinwon company in the inter-Korean industrial park in Kaesong, North Korea. South Korea on Thursday, April 25, 2013 warned of an unspecified "grave measure" if North Korea rejects talks on the jointly run factory park shuttered for nearly a month - setting up the possible end of the last remaining major symbol of inter-Korean cooperation.(AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon, File)

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea on Friday rejected a South Korean demand for talks on a jointly run factory park that has been closed nearly a month and said Seoul was free to withdraw its remaining citizens from the industrial complex if it wanted.

A day earlier, Seoul had threatened unspecified "grave measures" in setting a Friday deadline for Pyongyang to respond to its call for working-level discussions of the fate of the Kaesong industrial complex. Pyongyang's powerful National Defense Commission batted that threat back in a statement with its own warning of "grave measures."

While neither capital is providing specifics about what those measures might be, the war of words calls into question the future of the last major symbol of inter-Korean cooperation.

The park in the North Korean border town of Kaesong is the most significant casualty so far in the recent deterioration of relations between the Koreas. Pyongyang barred South Korean managers and cargo from entering North Korea early this month, then recalled the 53,000 North Koreans who worked on the assembly lines.

Seoul said it set a Friday deadline for Pyongyang to respond to the call for talks because the roughly 175 workers remaining at Kaesong are running short of food and medicine.

An unidentified spokesman for the National Defense Commission said in a statement carried by state media Friday that Seoul's demand for working-level talks was deceptive and said similar demands would "only speed up final destruction" of South Korea.

"If they are truly worried about the lives of South Korean personnel in the (complex), they may withdraw all of them to the south side where there are stockpiles of food and raw materials and sound medical conditions," the statement said, adding that North Korea would guarantee their personal safety during the withdrawal.

"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.

The dueling statements on Kaesong this week follow what had been something of a lull after a weeks-long tirade of warlike North Korean rhetoric that included threats of nuclear war and missile strikes. Tension rose as Seoul responded with its own tough language to Pyongyang's outburst, which was unusually violent, even by the standards of the already hostile relationship between the Koreas.

The rhetoric from Pyongyang was seen by some analysts as an attempt to try to force Pyongyang-friendly policies in Seoul and Washington. Pyongyang has 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.

One analyst said the North's response Friday was an effort to salvage its pride.

"North Korea is afraid of losing face by allowing South Korea to be assertive and take the lead in their relations," Hwang Jihwan, a North Korea expert at the University of Seoul, said Friday. "The North Koreans want a concession from South Korea so they can also step back and look generous."

South Korea said Friday it was considering countermeasures but refused to discuss what they might be. South Korean President Park Geun-hye held a meeting Friday with officials focusing on Kaesong, and her minister in charge of inter-Korean matters planned a statement on the complex later in the day.

Park was quoted as saying during the meeting that her government "asked that North Korea allow at least basic humanitarian things like medicine and food, but with this refusal, damage to our companies, people and families is growing. The best way would be to normalize the Kaesong industrial complex, but (I wonder) if (we) should wait indefinitely. Our people are sacrificing too much." She didn't elaborate, according to an initial pool report from the presidential Blue House.

Some observers said Seoul's threat Thursday of "grave measures" may signal a willingness to pull out its managers from the complex.

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 and the scattering of North Korean leaflets along the border belie the South Korean government'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 wants 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.