War With North Korea? South Korea Issues Stern Ultimatum in Strategy Shift

Last week North Korea toned down its hawkish rhetoric, perhaps due to its inability to carry out their nuclear threats or out fear of further isolating itself on the international stage.

This week, South Korea has come up with grave rhetoric of its own, issuing an ultimatum to the North to respond to its calls for dialogue on Kaesong Industrial Complex, a jointly-run industrial factory park that has been shuttered for almost a month.

Production at Kaesong has come to a standstill since the North recalled 53,000 North Koreans who worked on assembly lines at more than 120 South Korean-owned factories at the industrial complex. Seoul's calls for dialogue also stems from worsening conditions of the remaining workers at Kaesong, who are running short of food and medicine after Pyongyang barred South Korean managers and cargo from entering North Korea earlier this month.

South Korea's Unification Ministry proposed on Thursday to reopen working-level talks on Kaesong, and imposed a deadline of Friday noon for the North to respond. If Pyongyang rebuffs this call for dialogue, Seoul will undertake "grave measures" against it. While Unification Ministry's spokesman Kim Hyung-suk refused to specify what these measures might be, analysts believe that Seoul is likely to pull out the 176 South Korean managers who still remain at the complex.

To resolve the deadlocked operations, the Unification Ministry suggested that North Korea allow some South Koreans to cross the border to hand over food and medicine to the remaining managers. North Korea did not immediately respond to this call, and South Korean President Park Geun-hye has taken a hard stand against the North, declaring on Wednesday that the South would not seek to resolve the Kaesong standoff by making further concessions to the North.

If Pyongyang rebuffs Seoul's calls for dialogue, it will face serious economic and political implications.

North Korea's domestic economy will further deteriorate, as income from South Korea via Kaesong is a source of much-needed hard currency. The North's economy is already suffering due to hardened UN sanctions imposed against them early last month.

The North will also harm its credibility for foreign investment. "Investment is all about being able to anticipate results and trust, and when you have the North... suspending Kaesong while the world is watching, no country in the world will invest in the North," said President Park in a cabinet meeting on Tuesday.

Established in 2003 as part of a project to facilitate better ties between the North and South through economic relations, Kaesong is now considered the last major symbol of peaceful relations within the Korean peninsula.

Should Pyongyang mishandle Kaesong, it will not only destroy the little remaining potential for North-South cooperation; it will also further isolate itself as a pariah in the international arena, especially having increasingly alienated even China with its dramatic rhetoric and threats. North Korea must act wisely or face the consequences.