South Korea withdraws citizens from joint factory after North snubs talks

Story highlights

South Korea is pulling out its citizens from Kaesong

Seoul says it will support the companies invested in the zone

The North describes the South's offer of talks as "deceptive"

North Korea suspended activity at the joint industrial zone this month

Seoul, South Korea CNN  — 

South Korea started withdrawing its last remaining citizens Saturday from the manufacturing zone jointly operated with North Korea following weeks of tensions between the two.

Pyongyang this week shunned an offer by Seoul to hold talks over the Kaesong Industrial Complex after it halted activity there this month. The complex in North Korea was one of the few symbols of inter-Korean cooperation.

South Korea’s Unification Ministry announced that 126 workers and 63 trucks departed Kaesong, which lies just north of the Demilitarized Zone, the heavily fortified border that separates North and South Korea.

In the past two months, tensions on the Korean Peninsula have been rich in saber-rattling and short on concrete actions.

But the Kaesong complex, which houses the operations of more than 120 South Korean companies, appears to have become a significant victim.

Growing suffering

Ryoo said the decision to withdraw the South Koreans was a result of their “growing suffering caused by the unjust actions of the North,” which has been preventing workers, as well as food and medical supplies, from crossing the border into the zone for the past several weeks.

In an apparent last ditch attempt to resolve the crisis Thursday, South Korea proposed formal talks with the North, warning of serious consequences if the offer was rejected.

‘Deceptive’ offer rejected

But the North spurned the proposal.

In a statement on state media Friday, a spokesman for the North Korean National Defense Commission described Seoul’s offer of talks about the complex as “deceptive.”

It said that if Seoul “keeps aggravating the situation,” it would “be forced to take the final decisive and crucial measure first.”

The South Koreans in the complex are believed to have been looking after the idle factories there. Ryoo said Friday that the South Korean government would support the companies invested in the complex so they can continue with their business activities.

Suspending activity

Earlier this month, during a frenzy of fiery rhetoric directed at South Korea and the United States, the North began blocking South Koreans from entering the complex across the heavily fortified border.

It then pulled out the more than 50,000 North Koreans who work in the zone’s factories, saying it was temporarily suspending activity there. The move surprised some observers since Kaesong was considered to be a key source of hard currency for the regime of Kim Jong Un.

The situation on the Korean Peninsula deteriorated after the North carried out its latest underground nuclear test in February, prompting the U.N. Security Council to tighten sanctions on the regime in Pyongyang.

The tougher sanctions, together with joint U.S.-South Korean military training exercises in South Korea, intensified North Korea’s threats against Washington and Seoul.

The North’s ominous language, which unnerved the United States enough for it to move missile-defense systems into the region, had appeared to calm somewhat recently. And the U.S.-South Korean military exercises are due to end in the coming days.

CNN’s K.J. Kwon reported from Seoul, and Jethro Mullen reported and wrote from Hong Kong.