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(LEAD) S. Korea starts withdrawing nationals from Kaesong complex

All Headlines 11:19 February 11, 2016

(ATTN: ADDS more details throughout)

SEOUL, Feb. 11 (Yonhap) -- South Korea on Thursday began pulling its nationals out of an inter-Korean industrial complex in the North as Seoul moves to close the factory zone over Pyongyang's provocations.

South Korea on Wednesday shut down the Kaesong Industrial Complex in the North's border city of the same name, the last remaining symbol of inter-Korean reconciliation, in response to the North's latest nuclear test and long-range rocket launch.

The government said its priority is on ensuring that its people can safely return home from Kaesong, where a total of 124 South Korean firms are operating.

"South Koreans staying there were able to smoothly enter and exit the complex Thursday morning," a Unification Ministry official said. "The government is seeking to withdraw South Koreans from there as soon as possible."

Seoul's move, its strongest non-military measure, is aimed at cutting off the North's source of hard currency as the international community is pushing for stronger sanctions against North Korea's nuclear test on Jan. 6 and a long-range rocket launch earlier this week. North Korea has not shown any official reaction to Seoul's move to suspend it.

The two Koreas' quasi-state committees on running the complex are expected to hold talks over the suspension of the factory zone, including the movement of equipment.

The ministry said that a considerable number of about 54,000 North Korean workers at the zone did not show up for work on Thursday.

"We plan to retrieve South Korean companies' equipment and finished products, but there should be discussions over this with North Korea," a ministry official said.

Unification Minister Hong Yong-pyo said Wednesday that Seoul's move is aimed at preventing South Korean money from being funneled into the North's nuke and missile developments.

The South Korean firms annually provide about US$100 million in total to North Korean workers for wages. Since its inception in 2004, around $560 million in total has been offered to North Korean workers at the factory zone, including $120 million last year, according to the ministry.

The complex has served as a major revenue source for the cash-strapped North, while South Korea has benefited from cheap but skilled North Korean labor.


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