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After a week of threats and bluster, North Korea has managed yet again to dial up the tensions. South Korea's defense minister is warning the North has moved a missile to the eastern coast, and South Korean workers are still locked out of a joint industrial zone in the north. In a few minutes, we'll ask how worried we should be about all the threats from Pyongyang. First, NPR's Louisa Lim reports on today's developments.
(SOUNDBITE OF TRUCKS)
LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: For a second day, trucks carrying South Korean factory managers and supplies were turned back from the North Korean border post. More than just a moneymaker, the Kaesong industrial zone is of symbolic importance.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: New hope of the nation.
LIM: This video advertises Kaesong, which opened in 2004. It has been a model of inter-Korean cooperation, allowing South Korean companies to use cheap North Korean labor while earning around $2 billion a year for North Korea. Pyongyang has stopped access to the zone briefly in the past, notably in 2009, in a fit of pique at military drills. But the zone's fate is closely linked to ties between the two Koreas.
DR. PATRICK CRONIN: Because it's the one economic bridge, it's the hope, if you will, of future unification.
LIM: Patrick Cronin of the Center for a New American Security has written a report on Kaesong. He says there are several options at this stage, including a short-term closure or even a North Korean takeover.
CRONIN: The North Koreans certainly could essentially nationalize the Kaesong Industrial Complex and run it without South Korean managers. The thing that North Korea lacks, however, is buyers.
LIM: North Korea has been threatening to shut the zone down, saying it has nothing to gain from keeping it open. So what do they have to gain from making such threats? Cronin again.
CRONIN: The North Korean government has a tactical advantage to gain. It's going to threaten the outside powers until they decide that negotiation is better than pressuring North Korea, which could trigger a war.
LIM: North Korea is showing it means business in other ways too. South Korea's defense minister, Kim Kwan-jin, told a parliamentary committee Pyongyang has moved a missile with considerable range to its east coast. He said the missile wouldn't be capable of hitting the U.S. and there have been no visible signs of preparation for an all-out war - this one day after Pyongyang announced it would restart its mothballed nuclear plant.
In South Korea now, there's cautious discussion about how to dial down the tension, if it would be possible to tailor an exit strategy that doesn't include war.
TOM KIM: (Through translator) I mean, North Korea is always giving such importance to the element of face, so they're going to need some kind of rationale or some pretext to back down.
LIM: That's Tom Kim(ph), a visiting professor at Tuae University(ph). As the U.S. State Department's interpreter, he's visited North Korea 19 times and met Kim Jong Il. He worries about (unintelligible) suicidal mentality, which he says is deep-rooted in Korean psychology.
KIM: (Through translator) If they believe they can no longer stand pressure from within or from without, then Koreans have a tradition of suicidal mentality. That's what I'm worried about.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE WILL DEFEND GENERAL KIM JONG UN AT THE COST OF OUR LIVES")
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in foreign language)
LIM: The latest propaganda video to come out of the North is this song. It's named "We Will Defend General Kim Jong Un at the Cost of Our Lives." All sides are hoping it won't come to that. Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing.