North Korea suspends cross-border rail service

The North says it will suspend a historic railway service from next week in protest at what it calls South Korea's policy of confrontation.

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North Korea announced today that it would suspend a historic cross-border railway service from next week and curb other frontier crossings in protest at what it called South Korea's policy of confrontation. The hardline communist state also said it would "selectively expel" South Koreans based at two joint projects developed as symbols of reconciliation, the Kaesong industrial estate and the Mount Kumgang tourist resort.

Military authorities would "strictly restrict" border crossings by South Koreans headed for the two projects, according to the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). A popular tour by Southerners to the North's city of Kaesong would also be suspended, the agency said, announcing what it called "the first step to cope with the prevailing grave situation in relations". But the impoverished North indicated it would not force the closure of the Kaesong industrial estate, which earns it tens of millions of dollars a year.

In letters to business groups, quoted by the South's unification ministry, it said half the South Korean staff at the estate must leave but essential materials and staff could still pass through the heavily fortified frontier. On Nov 12, the North had announced plans "to strictly restrict and cut off" border passages from Dec 1. Today's statement was the first indication of what it planned. The restrictions could severely hamper operations at Kaesong, where more than 32,000 North Koreans earning around US$60 dollars (Dh220) a month work for 83 South Korean-owned factories along with about 1,500 South Koreans.

The North said that despite its Nov 12 warning, "the South Korean puppets are still hellbent on the treacherous and anti-reunification confrontational racket". It denounced comments by the South Korean president Lee Myung-Bak during his US trip last week. Mr Lee reportedly said his ultimate aim is reunification of the peninsula under a liberal democratic system. The unification ministry, which handles cross-border ties, expressed "serious regret" and urged the North to retract the measures.

"North Korea must come out for dialogue to help solve pending issues without distorting the position of our government or aggravating South-North relations," it said in a statement. A ministry spokesman stressed that some South Korean staff will stay in Kaesong to keep it running. "More strict order and discipline will be enforced as regards the passage and entry into the Kaesong Industrial Zone and Mount Kumgang tourist area and stringent sanctions applied against any violators of them," the North's statement said.

"The prospect of the inter-Korean relations will entirely depend on the attitude of the South Korean authorities." Mount Kumgang on the east coast is already effectively shut down after North Korean soldiers in July shot dead a Seoul housewife who strayed into a restricted zone. The South suspended tours there on safety grounds after the North refused its demand for a joint investigation into the tragedy.

The first regular train service for half a century across the frontier began in December 2007. It was hailed as a landmark in reconciliation between two nations which are still technically at war following their 1950-53 conflict, but has carried little cargo. The border curbs follow months of icy relations, including threats by the North over cross-border propaganda leaflets dropped by Seoul activists.

The North says the border restrictions are in response to Seoul's failure to honour agreements reached at inter-Korean summits in 2000 and 2007. Relations soured after Mr Lee, a conservative, took office in Seoul in February. He promised to take a firmer line with the North after a decade-long "sunshine" engagement policy under his liberal predecessors. Mr Lee said he would review the summit agreements, which envisage joint economic projects costing tens of billions of dollars.