Nov 28, 2008

World - Trains between Koreas stop, North restricts border

Choi Yoon-sang

PAJU, South Korea (Reuters) – A cargo train between North and South Korea and tours from the South to the communist state stopped on Friday under a border clampdown called for by Pyongyang in anger at the conservative government in Seoul.

But a large number of South Koreans who work at a joint industrial enclave in the North Korean border city of Kaesong were being allowed to keep permits to enter the factory park there, despite an earlier vow by Pyongyang to expel many of them by December 1, officials said.

"Today is the last day of Kaesong tours, and today is the last day of the train runs," Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Ho-nyeon told a briefing in Seoul.

The last train run of a sole empty cargo car powered by an electric locomotive pulled out of the seldom-used Munsan station for the final run to Kaesong 40 minutes behind schedule.

Train service between the two Koreas was halted during the 1950-53 Korean War. The start of the regular freight train run last year was hailed as a milestone in reconciliation.

But the trains have mostly been empty because it is cheaper for companies at the Kaesong factory park to move goods by trucks. North Korea said in January this year it wanted to halt the service that runs along a 20-km (12-mile) stretch of track.

Analysts said the tours to the city of Kaesong, started about a year ago, might have been viewed by reclusive North Korea as destabilizing because they allowed visitors from the South to see just how destitute their neighbor is and gave its residents a glimpse of their wealthy southern neighbors.

While the border was being shut to trains and tours, as many as 1,700 people have been told they can keep their permits to enter the Kaesong factory zone, spokesman Kim said.

The factory park has provided cash-starved North Korea with hundreds of millions of dollars and is expected to be operating near normally on Monday, despite the border clampdown.

"There were always concerns North Korea would use economic projects ... as political leverage," said Dong Yong-sueng, a research fellow at Samsung Economic Research Institute.

He said the real damage to North Korea is that South Korean firms would now hesitate to invest there.

The two Koreas were in talks about allowing even more of the 4,200 pass holders to cross the border regularly, Kim said.

The Kaesong factory park, about 70 km (45 miles) from Seoul, is the only major economic connection between the two Koreas. A total of 88 South Korean firms employ more than 33,000 low-wage North Koreans there to make goods such as watches and clothes.

(Writing by Jack Kim; additional reporting by Jonathan Thatcher; Editing by Jon Herskovitz)

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