SEOUL, November 12 – North Korea said Wednesday it would close its border with South Korea from next month in protest at what it called Seoul’s confrontational stance, a move that could cripple a joint industrial estate.,
The communist state announced that a measure "to strictly restrict and cut off all the overland passages" would take effect from December 1, the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported.
A total closure of the heavily fortified border would effectively shut down the Seoul-funded Kaesong industrial complex built just north of the frontier as a symbol of reconciliation.
It would also halt a popular tourist trip to Kaesong city.
South Korea’s unification ministry expressed regret and urged the North to restart stalled dialogue.
Spokesman Kim Ho-Nyoun said he did not believe the North intends a complete closure.
Wednesday’s announcement follows months of icy relations, including threats by the North to expel South Koreans from Kaesong in protest at the spreading of cross-border propaganda leaflets by Seoul activists.
KCNA said the move was in response to Seoul’s failure to honour agreements reached at summits between the North and the South in 2000 and 2007. It said the border restrictions were the "first step" in response.
Seoul’s confrontational moves were "going beyond the danger level," it added.
"The South Korean puppet authorities should never forget that the present inter-Korean relations are at the crucial crossroads of existence and total severance."
The head of the North’s delegation to military talks with the South sent a notice of the ban to Seoul’s armed forces on Wednesday.
Cross-border relations soured after conservative South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak took office in February. He promised to take a firmer line with the North after a decade-long "sunshine" engagement policy.
Lee said he would review summit agreements between the North and his liberal predecessors, which envisage joint economic projects costing tens of billions of dollars.
The North is also angry with South Korean activists who launch balloons carrying hundreds of thousands of leaflets across the heavily fortified border.
These criticise leader Kim Jong-Il as a dictator and repeat suggestions that he is in poor health — an especially sensitive topic. South Korean officials have said he suffered a stroke in August but is recovering.
Ministry spokesman Kim called the move "regrettable."
He said Seoul "respects the spirit" of all agreements including the summit declarations and was ready to hold detailed talks on implementing them.
A senior presidential aide said North Korea may have been infuriated by the leaflets but the Seoul government could not legally ban them.
The aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it is not yet clear whether the North means to close the industrial complex and the day tours.
More than 32,000 North Koreans earning around 60 dollars a month work for 83 South Korean-owned factories at Kaesong, along with about 1,500 South Koreans.
It opened in 2005 and earns the impoverished North tens of millions of dollars a year.
A second major joint project, the Mount Kumgang resort on the east coast, has already been shut down.
Seoul suspended tours after North Korean soldiers in July shot dead a woman tourist who strayed into a restricted zone.
Kaesong and Kumgang are operated by South Korean company Hyundai Asan, which also operates the day trips to Kaesong city near the industrial park.
"We don’t expect tours to Kaesong to be affected by this announcement," a spokesman told AFP Wednesday, adding that about 5,000 people have booked to take the trip next month.