South Korea appealed on Thursday to North Korea to engage in dialogue to defuse heightened tension on the peninsula as the communist nation scrutinized a list of South Koreans to be expelled from a joint industrial complex in the North. Seoul's Unification Minister Kim Ha-joong issued the call for dialogue days before North Korea was to suspend tourism to its ancient border city of Kaesong and expel some South Koreans from a nearby industrial zone.
North Korea said it was taking the measures starting Dec. 1 because of Seoul's confrontational stance toward Pyongyang. "I can hardly understand the North's unilateral measures," Kim said during a speech at a fair of products manufactured in Kaesong. "I propose that government authorities of the South and the North meet and discuss these measures."
Tensions between the two Koreas have been high since conservative South Korean President Lee Myung-bak took office in February with a pledge to take a tougher approach to Pyongyang than his liberal predecessors.
Lee has questioned implementing key accords his predecessors struck with the North's Kim Jong Il that call for providing aid to the North without condition. That and other moves by Seoul, including its recent sponsorship of a UN resolution denouncing Pyongyang's human rights record, have enraged the North. Pyongyang suspended reconciliation talks with Seoul soon after Lee took office. Civilian reconciliation projects continued, including the Kaesong industrial complex and tour projects. But the North announced on Monday that the civilian projects would be scaled back.
At Pyongyang's request, South Korea provided a list of workers who will pull out of the Kaesong complex in coming days. Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Ho-nyeon said Seoul has proposed that some 2,000 South Koreans be allowed to stay in the industrial zone. A total of about 4,000 South Korean company managers and other staff have permits travel to or stay in the enclave located just across the heavily fortified border. About 1,500-1,700 South Koreans are in the zone on an average day, South Korean officials said. Kim said the North is reviewing the list and is expected to give its response later Thursday.
The 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, leaving the sides technically at war. Ties warmed following the first-ever summit of their leaders in 2000, but chilled again this year with Lee's election.