SEOUL, South Korea – North Korean workers didn't show up for work at a jointly run factory complex with South Korea on Tuesday, a day after Pyongyang suspended operations at the last remaining major economic link between rivals locked in an increasingly hostile relationship.
Some of the more than 400 South Korean managers still at the Kaesong industrial complex just north of the Demilitarized Zone said they planned to stay and watch over their equipment until food ran out.
Pyongyang said Monday it would pull out its 53,000 workers at the complex, which began production in 2004 and is the biggest employer in the North's third-biggest city. By closing the factory, Pyongyang is showing it is willing to hurt its own shaky economy in order to display its anger with South Korea and the United States.
Pyongyang has unleashed a torrent of threats at Seoul and Washington following U.N. sanctions punishing the North for its third nuclear test, on Feb. 12, and joint military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea that allies call routine but that Pyongyang sees as invasion preparation. In recent days there have also been worries in Seoul of an even larger provocation from Pyongyang, including another possible nuclear test or rocket launch.
Some North Koreans who worked an overnight shift at Kaesong were still there Tuesday morning, but South Koreans said those scheduled for day shifts didn't show. A North Korean woman at Kaesong said in a telephone call that she planned to return home now that her night shift was done.
A South Korean worker who remained at Kaesong said that workers normally show up around 8 or 8:30 a.m. "They did not show up," said the worker, who declined to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
The worker said he planned to stay at the factory until food runs out. He said he and four other colleagues had been living on instant noodles. "We haven't had any rice since last night. I miss rice," he said 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.
The point of North Korea's threats and possible future provocations, analysts say, isn't a full-scale war, which North Korea would certainly lose. It's seen instead as an effort to force new, Pyongyang-friendly policies in South Korea and Washington and to boost domestic loyalty for Kim Jong Un, the country's young, still relatively untested new leader.
Monday's statement about Kaesong came from Kim Yang Gon, secretary of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea. It did not say what would happen to the 475 South Korean managers still at the Kaesong industrial complex.
Kim's statement said North Korea will now consider whether to close the complex permanently. "How the situation will develop in the days ahead will entirely depend on the attitude" of South Korean authorities, it said.
Yoo Ho-yeol, a North Korea expert at Korea University in South Korea, said the North probably will close the park. "North Korea will wait to see what kind of message we will send ... but there is no message that we can send to North Korea," he said.
Yoo said he expects the South Korean managers will be deported, Pyongyang will convert the park for military use, and the fates of the North Korean workers and their families will not be considered. "It's a wrong decision but they won't change it because it's not their top priority," he said.
Another analyst, however, believes North Korea will reopen the complex after South Korea-U.S. drills end in late April. Cheong Seong-chang at the private Sejong Institute in South Korea said the complex depends on raw materials and even electricity from South Korea. He also noted that workers at the complex are paid in U.S. dollars that North Korea would have a hard time replacing because of international sanctions.
Cheong also thinks that although North Korea would put recalled workers on other projects, it would "face a burden that it has to provide the similar quality of livelihood to them. ... There would be voices calling for the normalization of the Kaesong complex."
South Korea's Unification Ministry, which is responsible for relations with the North, issued a statement saying South Korea will act "calmly and firmly" and will make its best efforts to secure the safety of South Koreans at Kaesong.
The Kaesong complex is the last remaining symbol of inter-Korean rapprochement projects from previous eras of cooperation. Other projects such as reunions of families separated by war and tours to a scenic North Korean mountain became stalled amid confrontation between the rival Koreas in recent years.
Last month, North Korea cut the communications with South Korea that had helped regulate border crossings at Kaesong, and last week it barred South Korean workers and cargo from entering North Korea. Operations continued and South Koreans already at Kaesong were allowed to stay, but dwindling personnel and supplies had forced about a dozen of the more than 120 companies operating at Kaesong to close by Sunday.
North Korea also briefly restricted the heavily fortified border crossing at Kaesong in 2009, but manufacturers fear the current closure could last longer.
Kim, the party secretary, visited the complex Monday. He said in remarks carried by the Korean Central News Agency that Kaesong "has been reduced to a theater of confrontation."
South Korea's Unification Ministry estimates 53,000 North Korean workers in Kaesong received $80 million in salary in 2012, an average of $127 a month.