12/04/2008, 00.00
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Seoul completes operation of repatriating workers from North Korea

The future of the industrial complex in Kaesong is uncertain. It provides work for 36,000 North Koreans, thanks to investments by 88 industries from the south. Seoul raises the alarm over possible North Korean naval attacks, while the domestic opposition front calls for the resumption of peace talks.

Seoul (AsiaNews) - South Korea today completed the operation of repatriating hundreds of its citizens from North Korea, following the refusal to renew their work permits, decided by the Pyongyang regime December 1.

According to the communist government, the measure is the result of the harsh and hostile approach favored by South Korean president Lee Myung-bak, whom the domestic opposition is urging to resume talks and negotiations with the neighbor to the north.

On December 1, North Korea guaranteed work at the industrial complex of Kaesong for 880 South Korean workers - contrary to the agreement reached a few days earlier, which provided for 1600 workers - and another 100 on the tourist site of Mount Kumgang. Pyongyang itself was afraid of the possible expulsion of all of its citizens from the South, beginning on December 3.

This afternoon, the last group of workers will depart, about 50 in all, 23 of whom are Chinese. The announcement comes from Kim Ho-nyoun, the spokesman for South Korea's unification ministry. The government is not concealing its concern over the future of the industrial complex in Kaesong. It provides work for 36,000 North Korean citizens, thanks to the investments made by 88 industries in the South, which could lose all of their capital in the case of a complete shutdown. The lack of executives and professionals from South Korea, and the restriction of the movement of goods and persons at the border, could in fact seriously damage production and trade.

The tension between the two Koreas has sharpened over the past few weeks, with mutual accusations and threats: Lee Myung-bak is criticizing the recent positions taken by Pyongyang, and is calling for a flexible attitude on the part of the government, which is clashing with a communist regime that is "hard to understand," preferring the logic of threats to dialogue. Pyongyang denounces a hostile policy and lack of respect for agreements signed on the occasion of the two historic meetings in 2000 and 2007.

The South Korean army is also believed to be preparing for a possible naval attack by North Korea: the news comes in a report prepared by the defense ministry, warning of the danger of attack by sea, or the hijacking of South Korean fishing boats along the disputed ocean boundary, also at the center of a controversy between the two countries.

The escalation of the crisis is a source of political controversy inside South Korea, with the opposition parties pushing for a resumption of peace negotiations and cooperation with the North Korean communist regime. The Democratic Party, the Democratic Labor Party, and the Renewal of Korea Party have held a "emergency summit" to confront the "crisis with North Korea." During the summit, the leaders of the opposition parties drafted a joint document in which they call upon President Lee to: implement the agreements signed during the inter-Korean meetings, and to promote a policy of reconciliation; to stop the sending of leaflets over North Korea by balloon on the part of South Korean activists, which risks extinguishing the last glimmers of dialogue; and to provide humanitarian aid to the North without conditions or restrictions.

(Theresa Hwa-young contributed to this report)

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