North Korea Blocks South Korean Workers From Shared Facility

Earlier this week we talked about the Kaesong Industrial Complex with a North Korea expert — professor Aidan Foster-Carter from Leeds University. The facility is the North Korean manufacturing base for 120 South Korean firms and is a workplace for Koreans from both sides of the border. Now that South Korean workers have been blocked from entering the complex, Audie Cornish checks in with Foster-Carter once again.

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Earlier this week, we talked about the Kaesong Industrial Complex with a North Korea expert, Professor Aidan Foster-Carter from Leeds University. When we first spoke, Kaesong was still open, and the professor said it's the best bellwether to get a sense of North Korea's intentions.

AIDAN FOSTER-CARTER: If they close it, let alone, there are more serious, nastier games they could play, taking hostage the several hundred South Koreans who are there at any given time. That would worry me. But while it carries on, I think we can probably sleep fairly soundly.

CORNISH: Well, professor Foster-Carter is back with us now. And, professor, now that Kaesong has been closed for two days, are you still sleeping soundly?

FOSTER-CARTER: I'm a little bit more worried. The North Koreans are very good at wrong-footing me and wrong-footing everybody, and their timing was neat this time. Let's be clear what has happened. The zone continues to exist. It continues to produce goods. But - and it is a big but - for two days now, the border has been closed by the North Koreans to incoming traffic. So South Koreans, several hundred of them who are there are still there, and they're presumably doing what they can with the materials that they have. They can go out, but most of the South Korean managers are staying put because they're afraid that if they do go out in the present climate, they won't be allowed back in again. So it's still not quite a complete closure, and I hope I don't sound like I'm splitting hairs or anything. It's an annoying and somewhat worrying development, but it could be worse. And we'll see over the coming days if it gets worse.

CORNISH: And as you said, South Korean workers are there by choice. It's not as though that this is a hostage situation as of yet.

FOSTER-CARTER: Mm-hmm. That's absolutely right. When they're interviewed, they tend to say politicians should get out and just leave us alone. It's a great business. Our North Korean workers are excellent. We think it's a useful project for peace on the peninsula. And I say amen to all of that. But just at the moment, the North Koreans have decided. Again, they got cross because people were pointing out that while there was all this talk, actually there was this zone and nothing was happening. So maybe somebody in Pyongyang thought that they better make something happen.

CORNISH: Now, spokesman for the North Korean army said in a statement that, quote, "The moment of explosion is approaching fast." Adding this: "The U.S. had better ponder over the prevailing grave situation." Now, North Korea is known for making dramatic threats of this nature, so how seriously do you take these statements?

FOSTER-CARTER: I would certainly don't dismiss them, but I think in Washington, they're trying to figure out, as we all are, what North Korea really wants at this time because in among all the bluster, there doesn't seem to be a demand. Better think carefully, better watch out, and then do what? The suggestion has been made, but President Obama or somebody should send a high-level representative to Pyongyang and find out. That, of course, is politically difficult. I mean, I can imagine certain Republicans would - will call it weakness and so forth, but there is a genuine puzzle here and that - in a curious way - it gives me both alarm and a degree of hope that this is a lot of shouting and that although it is in dangerous territory but that it will, in some form, die down. They ramped it up, and they can ramp it down again.

CORNISH: That's Aidan Foster-Carter of Leeds University putting the latest news from North Korea in context for us.

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