North Korean laborers did not show up for work Tuesday at the joint factory complex of Kaesong on the border, South Korean companies with operations there said, effectively shutting it down for the first time since it began shipments in 2004.
A source at South Korea’s Ministry of Unification told the state-funded Yonhap news agency that workers did not report to work as the North announced the day before that it would pull out all of its laborers in protest of South Korean “provocations.”
Pyongyang's decision to halt work at the Kaesong industrial park coincided with speculation it would carry out a missile launch, or even another nuclear test, in what has become one of the worst periods of tension on the peninsula since the end of the Korean War in 1953.
About 475 South Korean workers and factory managers remain in Kaesong, a few kilometers inside the North, Reuters reported. The South Korean government said 77 would return on Tuesday. Some said they planned to stay and watch over their equipment until food ran out, the Associated Press reported. Many South Koreans have been reluctant to leave, worried about the effect on their companies and jobs.
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"North Korean workers didn't come to work today, and production has halted in our Kaesong facilities," a spokeswoman for Shinwon, a women's clothing maker, told Reuters.
A spokesman for textile company Taekwang Industrial and at least two other firms also said North Koreans workers did not show up on Tuesday and that production had stopped.
More than 100 representatives from businesses operating at Kaesong were holding an emergency meeting at the complex that started at about 9 p.m. ET, witnesses told Reuters.
An executive at another South Korean apparel firm running a factory in Kaesong said late on Monday his employees had told him they would stay.
"I don't know what to do, honestly. I can't simply tell my workers to leave or stay," said the executive, who requested anonymity.
"We haven't had any rice since last night. I miss rice," one South Korean worker told the AP Tuesday morning. "We are running out of food. We will stay here until we run out of ramen."
He said he and his colleagues are getting news about Kaesong through South Korean television. There is no Internet connection at Kaesong.
Few experts had expected Pyongyang to jeopardize Kaesong, which accounts for $2 billion in annual trade and employs 50,000 North Koreans making household goods for 123 South Korean firms.
North Korea said Monday it would suspend operations at the park, its sole remaining major project with the South. No decision had been made on closing Kaesong permanently, it said.
The North's official KCNA news agency said Seoul was trying to "turn the zone into a hotbed of war."