DORASAN, South Korea (AFP) — North Korea Monday began tightly restricting border crossings in protest at what it calls South Korea's hostile policy, a move which could hit a joint industrial estate built as a symbol of reconciliation.
The western road crossing at Dorasan opened at 9:00 am (0000 GMT), one hour later than normal. From Monday the North was to open its gates only six times a day — three crossings each way — compared to the normal 19.
Witnesses and officials said the hardline communist state had also halved the number of vehicles and people allowed to cross at any one time.
The North has also suspended a cross-border railway and a day tour programme, and evicted hundreds of South Korean workers at the Kaesong industrial estate just across the heavily fortified frontier from Dorasan.
Pyongyang has decided to allow fewer than 1,000 South Koreans to work at Kaesong, far below the 1,600-1,700 demanded by Seoul to keep the estate operating, an official of the Kaesong Industrial District Management Committee told AFP.
"Both sides are still in talks and we are trying to adjust the number, " the official said on condition of anonymity.
More than 4,000 South Korean officials and managers previously had permission to visit or stay at Kaesong. Hundreds packed up and left over the weekend.
On Monday the first convoy of South Korean lorries and cars — totalling 150 vehicles rather than the customary 250 — crossed the border in morning fog.
Two armed North Korean soldiers looked on and a military jeep escorted the vehicles on their journey to Kaesong, in what South Korean officials said was the normal procedure.
"The border controls have forced our firm to cut the number of permanent stayers from two to one in Kaesong, " said Yu Jong-Gun, a South Korean contractor building a factory at the estate.
Some 35,000 North Koreans earning about 70 dollars a month work for 88 South Korean firms at Kaesong, producing items such as watches, clothes, shoes and kitchenware.
Production began in December 2004 at the estate, which brings together South Korean capital and a cheap North Korean workforce and is intended to narrow the vast wealth gap between the communist North and capitalist South.
The North has indicated it does not want to shut down the estate, which earns it millions of dollars a year. But analysts believe this may happen if relations worsen further.
The North says the border curbs are in response to conservative South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak's failure to honour summit pacts that were reached between Pyongyang and his liberal predecessors.
It is also angry at propaganda leaflets floated across the border by rights groups.
Relations have been frosty for months. They worsened further when North Korean soldiers shot dead a Seoul housewife who strayed into a restricted military zone at the Mount Kumgang resort.
The east coast resort was the other major Seoul-funded reconciliation project. The South has suspended tours there since the killing but keeps a skeleton staff at Kumgang.
The crossing to Kumgang will in future open just twice a week — once in each direction — compared to four times a day previously.
"No elements are in sight that may help improve inter-Korean ties in the near future, " Professor Kim Yong-Hyun of Dongguk University told Yonhap news agency.
"When the Obama administration gets under way next year and the second stage of the six-party (denuclearisation talks) process is completed, there may emerge some momentum to turn it around. "
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