North Korea to Seal Border with South

North Korea has declared it will seal its border with the South starting Dec. 1, after a recent escalation of tensions on the peninsula.

On Monday, Pyongyang notified Seoul that all tours to Gaesong, just 1.86 miles north of the demilitarized zone, will be closed. Travel permits for management personnel working at a South Korea-funded joint industrial complex, the icon of inter-Korean economic cooperation, are also to be reduced by half.

South Korean media has called the move another chapter in the impoverished North's history of brinksmanship. The aim, according to media reports, is to threaten the South's new conservative government and to draw the incoming U.S. administration into resuming nuclear talks.

Here's a Q&A primer on the ongoing story.

What's happening with international efforts to stop a nuclear North Korea?

Years of negotiations among six party talks – which include the two Koreas, the United States, China, Japan, and Russia – have been at a standstill. The next round is scheduled to resume in Beijing Dec. 8. Russia and North Korea have yet to confirm participation. Since reaching an agreement in September 2005 for Pyongyang to stop developing nuclear weapons in exchange for massive international aid, the talks have been on-and-off due to disagreements on details of verification protocol.

At the moment, the issue is whether North Korea should allow nuclear inspectors to take samples from the weapons-grade nuclear sites. The U.S. says it was part of the deal when it took North Korea off the terrorism blacklist last month, but Pyongyang disputes that. The communist North insists it will only allow field visits, document confirmation and interviews with technicians.

What's been happening to inter-Korean relations?

The two Koreas reached a historic agreement at the June 2000 summit to put behind confrontational hostility and work towards reconciliation and cooperation. Since then, human and economic exchanges have significantly increased, bringing a mood of hope for peace on the peninsula. Tourism projects, cultural exchanges, and business investment by the South have flourished despite international tensions over North Korea's nuclear program.

Aid and investment to the North by South Koreans had reached its peak during a decade of two previous left-wing administrations. A South Korean conglomerate Hyundai Asan has poured in $656 million into developing the Mt. Kumkang resort, northeast of the border. Another $2.28 billion was invested in an economic industrial complex spearheaded by Hyundai Asan and Korea Land Corporation. Almost 2 million South Korean tourists have visited Mt. Kumkang and more than 100,000 took a tour to Gaesong, contributing over $120 million to the North.

What exactly is the border like?

Since the end of the Korean War in 1953, the partition that separates both countries has become the world's most heavily fortified border. The demilitarized zone (DMZ) acts as a buffer which stretches 250 kilometers (154 miles) long and 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) wide. With no final peace treaty agreed, the two Koreas remain technically at war. The area is guarded by almost two million solders from both sides, equipped with mines, electric fences, and bunkers. Some 150,000 tourists, half of them foreigners, visit the border every year to glimpse the last frontier of the Cold War.

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