North Korea on Thursday expelled all South Koreans from the jointly run Kaesong industrial zone and seized their factory assets, saying Seoul’s earlier decision to shutter the complex had amounted to a “declaration of war”.
Pyongyang said it was placing Kaesong, which lies 10 kilometers (six miles) inside North Korea, under military control and cutting two key communication hotlines with Seoul.
The measures mark a significant escalation of cross-border tensions that have been elevated since North Korea carried out a nuclear test last month and a long-range rocket launch on Sunday.
Seoul had announced on Wednesday it was closing down operations at Kaesong, and the North said it would now experience the “disastrous and painful consequences” of that action.
By shutting Kaesong, the South had killed the “last lifeline” of North-South relations and made a “dangerous declaration of war” that could bring the divided peninsula to the brink of conflict, the North’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea (CPRK) said in statement.
Relations between the two Koreas have always been volatile, but analysts said the current situation risked turning into a full-blown crisis.
“Now we can say that all strings between the Koreas have been cut and that there are no more buffers,” said Ko Yoo-Hwan, a professor of North Korean Studies at Dongguk University in Seoul.
“An escalation of tensions is inevitable, and I see further trouble ahead with Kaesong and the issues of seized assets, especially if North Korea militarizes the zone,” Ko said.
All South Koreans were ordered to leave Kaesong by 5 pm Pyongyang time (0830 GMT) and told they could take nothing but their personal possessions.
The order was published by the North’s official KCNA news agency just 30 minutes before the expulsion deadline.
The North also said it had ordered a “complete freeze of all assets,” including raw materials, products and equipment.
The owners of the 124 South Korean companies operating factories in Kaesong had sent hundreds of staff and empty trucks into the North on Thursday morning in the hope of bringing out as much as they could.
It was not immediately known how many were still in the estate when the order to leave was issued.
“We will make the utmost efforts to make sure that all our nationals return home safely,” Seoul’s Unification Ministry said in a statement.
Several people, who crossed back into the South on Thursday morning, said they had noticed an increased military presence in Kaesong, including armed soldiers carrying backpacks and sleeping bags.
Despite the ban on removing anything beyond their personal belongings, some trucks crossing the border after the expulsion order were carrying factory materials.
“No one stopped us when we were moving our goods into the truck,” said Park Seung-Gul, the manager at a textile company in Kaesong.
Earlier in the day, a mood of pain, anger and anxiety hung over scores of South Korean businessmen crossing the border Thursday into North Korea to save what they could of a decade-long investment. That became almost impossible after North Korea’s latest announcement to seize all materials left in the complex.
“I’m speechless at what has happened,” said Jang Ik-Ho, a manager with an engineering company in the complex.
“The companies have all done our best to make things work, and now this happens. What did we do to deserve this?” Jang said, as he prepared to cross into the North.
Jang’s remarks reflected a general sense of outrage among Kaesong’s South Korean business community over the shutdown order.
Opened in 2004 as a symbol of inter-Korean reconciliation, the project had — until now — proved remarkably immune to the regular upheavals in North-South relations.
But awareness that much of the money the North made from Kaesong went to leader Kim Jong-Un’s inner circle and the country’s nuclear weapons program has always grated, and last month’s nuclear test followed by a long-range rocket launch on Sunday, proved the final straw.
“It’s as if we’re just being ordered to jump off a cliff,” said Jeong Gi-Seob, head of the Kaesong Owners’ Association.
Jeong also warned that companies could face severance payment totalling around $100 million.
Kim Soo-Hee, a nurse working at a medical clinic in the complex who was on her way back to South Korea, said some of the North Koreans seemed to have been aware a shut-down was possible, and had been asking her for several days if Kaesong might close.
Kim also said she had seen several military trucks arriving in Kaesong and a number of armed soldiers with backpacks and sleeping bags.
“There were more soldiers around the complex than usual,” she said.