Brinksmanship Blockade: North Korea Bars South Koreans from Kaesong

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The other shoe dropped in North Korea Wednesday, as the government of Kim Jong Un refused to let nearly 500 South Korean workers cross the DMZ to work in the Kaesong industrial park.

The joint operation between North and South was seen as a glimmer of optimism that the tense situation on the Korean peninsula wasn’t that bad.

It has just become so.

The Kaesong Industrial Complex, six miles north of the border town of Panmunjom, was the last operational border crossing between the two Koreas, and their lone remaining major cooperative venture.

Meanwhile, North Korea kept up its combat rhetoric. The chairman of the Central Committee of the Korean Social Democratic Party declared Tuesday that Pyongyang “is convinced that under the present situation the strategy for achieving reunification and the way to be followed by the nation lie in countering the U.S. nuclear blackmail with a just nuclear strike and a provocation with a prompt great war for national reunification.”

Secretary of State John Kerry denounced such talk as “unacceptable” Tuesday. “The bottom line, very simply, is that what Kim Jong Un has been choosing to do is provocative, it is dangerous, reckless, and the United States will not accept the DPRK as a nuclear state.”

North Korea has valued the Kaesong deal because the 53,400 North Koreans who work there in a variety of labor-intensive factories generate nearly $100 million annually for cash-strapped North Korea. Since the zone opened in 2004, workers in more than 100 plants there have made everything from textiles to miniature electronics used by the automobile industry.

The North, which is letting the South Koreans at Kaesong return home if they wish, has blocked South Koreans from the industrial park before. In 2009, it barred South Koreans three times in anger over joint U.S.-South Korean military drills, finally re-opening only after the drills ended.

The current Foal Eagle exercise involving U.S. and South Korean troops is slated to last until the end of April.

It could be a long month.