North Korea has blocked access to South Korean workers to the Kaesong industrial zone. Christoph Pohlmann of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Seoul explains why this does not mean an escalation.
DW: Kaesong was the last economic venture between North and South Korea and is an extremely important source of income for the North. How can the North afford to shut down the industrial complex?
Christoph Pohlmann: If the block were to last, it would mean financial loss. Going by the information I have, North Korea earns around 80 million US dollars per year from Kaesong. Taking the country's national budget into account, it is a considerable amount. On the other hand, though, North Korea could also do without Kaesong - the regime would not collapse if it were to close. So not letting the workers through right now is more of a symbolic measure to further escalate the situation. And it is an escalation because up until now, the existence of Kaesong has never been questioned by either side in any crisis. So we have to wait and see whether this is just temporary or if further steps will be taken.
It seems new provocations are coming from North Korea almost every day at the moment. The development in Kaesong came shortly after Pyongyang announced it would restore a nuclear plant that was shut down a few years ago. Has the conflict over the past few days taken on a new dimension?
I would not necessarily say that the conflict has taken on a new dimension yet. What we can see is that there have been a number of threats of symbolic nature on different levels. It must be taken into account that the threats have remained words; there have not been any military attacks or rocket or nuclear tests. So there is a large discrepancy between the threats on the one hand and the actual measures taken on the other. North Korea did temporarily block access to Kaesong in the year 2009 and it does this every year when the American-South Korean military maneuver takes place. So this is by no means anything new.
The large-scale military exercise being undertaken by South Korea and the US is being cited as the reason for the advancing hostilities. Does that mean the threats will stop once the maneuver is over?
There is no way of knowing for sure, especially because the threats started before the maneuvers - the North launched what they claimed to be a satellite in December and conducted a nuclear test on February 12. But for the North Koreans - they told me this during my last trip there - the military maneuvers are a provocation to them, even though the US and South Korea emphasize that it is just for defense purposes. And the transport of US military equipment - various bombs and warships and submarines carrying nuclear warheads - to the Korean Peninsula out of solidarity to the South is certainly a provocation as well. In other words, it is a spiral of provocation from both standpoints.
Experts are saying Kim Jong Un's rhetoric and his aggressive message is meant primarily to send a message to his own people and prove that despite his young age, he is a decisive leader who won't be pushed around. Has Kim used the current crisis to strengthen his position?
That is hard to say. I also think that the North Korean rhetoric, the threats, are always aimed at two audiences: firstly, North Korea itself - the people and the military, and secondly, the outside world - South Korea and especially the US and China. These two dimensions are always at play. And there is an indication that the recent escalation of threats have strengthened Kim Jong Un's position: the meeting of the Supreme People's Assembly, the country's mock parliament, on the weekend. In what might be considered a departure from Kim Jong Il's "military first" policy to a certain extent, Kim Jong Un adopted a duel strategy: to strengthen the military and develop the country's nuclear potential and also to economically develop the country. It is a deliberate strategy; the nuclear development for civil and also military purposes is supposed to help economic development as well. It is supposed to create a safe environment so that North Korea can concentrate all of its resources on economic development.
Looking south, how is the atmosphere in Seoul? Are the people there afraid?
The mood is much more relaxed than the national and international media is letting on. That is in part because South Koreans are already used to all of these threats and they see little point in letting it affect their daily lives. If they let it get to them, at some point it would paralyze them. So they do worry about the North, but they refuse to let it get the better of them.
Christoph Pohlmann is a North Korea expert at the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Seoul.