Last South Koreans leave jointly-run North Korean factory

April 6, 2013: South Korean vehicles arrive back from the North Korean city of Kaesong at Unification Bridge in Paju, South Korea.

April 6, 2013: South Korean vehicles arrive back from the North Korean city of Kaesong at Unification Bridge in Paju, South Korea.  (AP)

The last South Koreans stationed at a jointly run factory park in North Korea pulled out Friday, dealing a major blow to the rivals' only remaining symbol of rapprochement and rendering them with virtually no official communication channel.

The departure of seven South Koreans who had been negotiating taxes and the back salaries of North Korean workers marks the first time that the industrial complex, just north of the heavily fortified border in the town of Kaesong, has been vacant since being launched in 2004 during a previous era of reconciliation.

It could spell the end of an experiment that many saw as a bridge between the divided Koreas that was meant to help pave the way for a future unified Korea by proving that workers from two polar opposite economic systems could collaborate. Through both liberal and conservative governments in Seoul, Kaesong survived past tensions between the Koreas, including attacks blamed on North Korea in 2010 that killed 50 South Koreans.

The withdrawal also removes one of the last points of contact between the Koreas, which are still technically in a state of war because the 1950-53 Korean War ended with a cease-fire, not a peace treaty. Seoul had used phone lines connected to a South Korea-run management office at Kaesong to exchange messages with North Korea. Some analysts said that the pullout worsens already serious mistrust between Seoul and Pyongyang and raises long-term fears that miscalculation could lead to armed conflict if the rivals can't improve ties.

Two vehicles carrying wages for the North Korean workers crossed the border at around the time the seven South Koreans returned, according to Seoul's Unification Ministry, which is responsible for ties between the rivals. The amount of money wasn't immediately disclosed.

As tensions between the countries soared early last month, North Korea suspended operations at Kaesong, barring South Korean factory managers and trucks carrying supplies from entering the park and withdrawing the more than 53,000 North Koreans working at 123 South Korean companies in Kaesong's special economic zone.

Amid a weeks-long torrent of threats, including warnings of impending nuclear and missile strikes, the Kaesong shutdown was the most significant tangible action by North Korea as it sought to express anger over South Korean-U.S. military drills that ended Tuesday and U.N. sanctions imposed last month over a February nuclear test, North Korea's third. The North has somewhat eased that warlike rhetoric of late and shown tentative signs of willingness to talk.