Paju: South Korean workers began returning from a jointly run industrial park in North Korea after Seoul announced a complete withdrawal following months of military tensions.
The move plunges into doubt the future of the Kaesong complex -- once a rare symbol of cooperation across the world`s most heavily militarised border, and a crucial source of hard currency for Kim Jong-Un`s isolated regime.
The workers` return came on the same day that the North announced it would put a US citizen on trial for trying to overthrow the communist regime -- a move sure to add to frictions between Pyongyang and the West.
A frustrated South Korea said Friday that it had decided to pull its remaining 175 workers from Kaesong after Pyongyang rejected its ultimatum to join formal negotiations on restarting the stalled operations.
A first batch of 11 workers returned on Saturday afternoon through a border checkpoint in Paju, with 116 more scheduled to cross over in a second convoy later in the day according to the government.
The remaining 48 people -- mostly government employees who manage the complex as well as telecom and electrical engineers -- are expected to be pulled out on Monday, according to Seoul`s Unification Ministry.
South Korean companies with factories at the site have expressed shock at the sudden withdrawal.
"We`re dismayed at the sudden government decision to pull out of Kaesong. We`re concerned this would eventually result in its closure," a representative of the 123 South Korean firms with interests there told reporters in Paju.
"It is regrettable that there was no prior consultation with us. Although different companies have different opinions about whether to accept this sudden decision, we have decided to comply as it`s a government decision."
The complex has fallen victim to a cycle of escalating tensions triggered by the North conducting a nuclear test in February, which came just over a year after Kim Jong-Un took power following the death of his father Kim Jong-Il.
"I was so full of dreams and hopes seven years ago," said Park Yun-Kyu, the CEO of a Seoul clothing company with operations at Kaesong.
"Now things look so grim and I don`t know what to do," he told AFP while waiting for his last two employees to return.
Pyongyang, which has demanded the end of UN sanctions and a halt to all South Korea-US joint military exercises, decided on April 3 to block all South Korean access to Kaesong although it has allowed workers to leave.
Days later, the North pulled out its 53,000-strong workforce and suspended operations, angered by the South`s mention of a "military" contingency plan to protect its staff at the site.
"The next South Korean step could be to cut off electricity to the complex before closing it permanently," said Yang Moo-Jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.
"South Korea`s strong response may result in the disappearance of the last remaining point of contact -- and a prolonged confrontation -- between the two Koreas."
Established in 2004, the complex lies 10 kilometres (six miles) inside the North, which remains technically at war with the South after the 1950-53 Korean War was concluded with a ceasefire rather than a peace treaty.
After a recent series of apocalyptic threats and growing tensions with South Korea and its key US ally, the North`s official media said on Saturday that it would soon put an American citizen arrested in November on trial for "crimes aimed to topple the DPRK" (Democratic People`s Republic of Korea).
Korean-American Pae Jun-Ho was arrested as he entered the northeastern port city of Rason. The North has not said what the charges are based on.