PAJU, South Korea (AP) — Most South Koreans who had remained at an industrial park in North Korea had returned home by early Tuesday morning, officials said, leaving a final seven behind to negotiate unpaid wages for North Korean workers.
The Unification Ministry in Seoul said 43 South Koreans began departing from Kaesong late Monday night and arrived in the South just past midnight after officials arranged vehicles to carry them across the border.
But it wasn’t immediately known when the wage negotiations would take place and the remaining seven South Koreans would return home.
The departure of the last South Koreans would empty out the jointly run complex, located just across the border in the North Korean town of Kaesong, for the first time since it opened in 2004 and possibly lead to the permanent closure of the last symbol of inter-Korean cooperation.
Amid high tensions, North Korea suspended operations at Kaesong in early April, withdrawing all of its 53,000 workers and barring South Korean factory managers and trucks with supplies from entering the complex. It was the most significant action taken by North Korea as it sought to show its anger over South Korean-U.S. military drills and U.N. sanctions imposed over Pyongyang’s February nuclear test, its third.
North Korea’s accompanying torrent of warlike rhetoric included threats to launch nuclear strikes on the U.S., although it has recently shown some tentative signs of willingness to talk.
The U.S.-South Korean drills, which North Korea calls war preparations, ended Tuesday, the United States Forces Korea said.
Kurt Campbell, the former top U.S. diplomat for Asia, told reporters at a forum in Seoul that there was substantial concern with the way Pyongyang has treated what was supposed to be a venue to improve inter-Korean relations.
But he said what has happened at Kaesong wasn’t a watershed moment like the shelling of a front-line South Korean island or the sinking of a South Korean warship, two attacks that killed 50 South Koreans in 2010. Pyongyang denies involvement in the sinking.
South Korea began withdrawing its remaining nationals from Kaesong on Saturday, citing a shortage of food and medicine for them, after North Korea rejected an offer to hold talks on the complex.
Kaesong, which combines South Korean knowhow and technology with cheap North Korean labor, is the last remaining cooperation project between the Koreas. The Korean Peninsula officially remains at war because the 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty.
Other collaborative programs, including tours from South Korea to a scenic North Korean mountain, have been stalled in recent years because of confrontation between the rival Koreas.
A group of businessmen with factories in Kaesong sought to visit North Korea on Tuesday but could not because Pyongyang didn’t approve the trip, the Unification Ministry said.
Hyung-jin Kim reported from Seoul. AP writers Sam Kim and Foster Klug contributed to this report from Seoul.