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NK Re-allows Border Crossings in Abrupt About-Face

Posted March. 11, 2009 08:37,   


North Korea yesterday reopened inter-Korean inland travel to and from the inter-Korean industrial complex in Kaesong and Mount Kumgang, ending the detention of South Koreans from the shutdown of inter-Korean military communication.

The number of people and vehicles crossing the inter-Korean border, however, significantly declined amid fears of another detention in the North at anytime.

◊ Plunge in no. of inter-Korean travelers

North Korea informed South Korea that it allowed inter-Korean inland travel to and from the complex and Mount Kumgang in two letters signed by working-level military officials in the eastern and western coastal regions. The letters reached South Korean authorities at 9:10 a.m. yesterday.

As a result, 247 of 706 South Koreans and 179 vehicles of 424 vehicles set to enter the complex crossed the border into the North in the morning. Three of the 51 South Koreans and three of the 19 vehicles bound for Mount Kumgang left for the scenic mountain via an inland route.

Kim Ho-nyoun, spokesman for the South Korean Unification Ministry, said, “A considerable number of people who applied to enter the North canceled and didn’t show up at the inter-Korean travel office.”

“The volume of passage seems to have declined apparently due to grave fears that people could be detained in the North at anytime if Pyongyang changes its mind, though it suddenly changed its mind and re-allowed travel to the North this time.”

◊ Border shutdown fear lingers

Since military communication remained severed, the border crossing was conducted through a complicated process yesterday.

After South Koreans seeking to visit the North applied for border crossing permits, the government decided whether to allow passage. The Unification Ministry’s task force for the complex sent the list of visitors to the Gaeseong Industrial District Management Committee via KT’s phone lines.

The committee then sent the list to the Central Special District General Bureau, a Cabinet-level administrative organization for the North Korean government. Bureau officials sent it to the North Korean military to win final approval. Previously, border crossing was done through phone calls between South and North Korean military authorities, but now the process requires a series of steps comprising phone calls, faxes and couriers.

Spokesman Kim said, “Though border crossings have not recovered to the level before Monday, it is fortunate that passage has resumed after only a day’s suspension.”

If the North halts border crossings and detains South Koreans by citing South Korea-U.S. joint military drills and deteriorating inter-Korean relations, however, Seoul could be blamed for allowing passage without countermeasures in place.

◊ 3 scenarios for a change in stance

Several explanations have been cited for Pyongyang’s sudden change in heart just a day after it banned border crossings.

One theory suggests the about face is a tactic aimed at highly political purposes. One expert said, “North Korea is very good at hit and run tactics. Pyongyang seeks to ease the burden of long-term detention of South Koreans by using the possibility of detention as a weapon against Seoul and Washington.”

Another possibility is confusion in communications within the North. The move might have occurred due to an error committed as the top military authorities failed to consider the suspension of border crossing when deciding to shut down military communications. The possibility for this is slim, however, considering the North’s well-defined process of decision making.

The final reason could lie in economics. Tuesday was payday for North Korean workers at the industrial complex, and about three million dollars was transferred to the North. North Korean leaders, hobbled by economic hardship, might have wanted to avoid economic losses stemming from the deteriorating situation.

An informed source on North Korea said, “Rumors had it that when asked by certain hard-liners to shut down the Kaesong Industrial Complex in December last year, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il said no, saying, ‘If so, shut it down after finding other measures to earn dollars.’”

Other sources disagreed, however, saying Kim has ordered the complex to be closed three times since last year, but the North’s economy officials rejected the order due to the country’s dire situation.