SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea expelled all South Korean government officials stationed on its territory on Thursday, reacting to a hardening in the South's policy toward it over its lack of cooperation on its nuclear program.
All 11 South Korean government officials, who are based in a jointly operated factory complex in Kaesong, a small town 37 miles from Seoul on the north side of the border between the two countries, returned to South Korea early Thursday after the North Korean authorities gave them three days to leave.
The expulsion was the North's first reaction to the new policy of President Lee Myung-bak of South Korea, who said Wednesday that his government would not expand economic cooperation with the North unless it cooperated in dismantling its nuclear weapons programs.
South Korea said it was "undaunted" by the North's "deeply regrettable" move to expel the officials. It warned that North Korea was worsening its own isolation by disrupting budding economic cooperation between the two Koreas, symbolized by the industrial complex in Kaesong where 69 South Korean companies employ 23,000 North Koreans to produce shoes, clothing, watches and other goods.
"We will deal with this issue in a pragmatic way," said Lee's spokesman, Lee Dong-kwan. He said the response would mix "flexibility" and "stern principle," without elaborating further.
The expulsion did not immediately affect the presence of hundreds of South Korean civilians in Kaesong or the operations of their plants. Nor did it stop the daily cross-border traffic of South Korean factory managers commuting from Seoul or of tourists visiting the North Korean town.
The dispute arose at the same time that the South joined the United States in applying direct pressure on North Korea to come clean on its nuclear activities.
The North's surprise move to expel the officials provoked debate among the rival political parties in South Korea over the effectiveness of Lee's new approach to the North. The parties are preparing for parliamentary elections on April 9.