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NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 26 (October 23, 2008)

All Headlines 10:46 October 23, 2008


North Korea Intensifies Criticism, Jeopardizes Inter-Korean Ties

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- In its strongest criticism of Seoul in recent months, North Korea has threatened to cut off all ties with South Korea, indicating that all remaining joint tourism and economic cooperation projects could be halted.

With repeated references to South Korean President Lee Myung-bak as a "traitor" and "fascist," the North released a message through its state-run newspaper Rodong Sinmun threatening to scrap inter-Korean relations unless South Korea abandons what the communist regime calls its "confrontational policy" against Pyongyang.

The editorial appeared Oct. 16 and argued that the South Korean administration is continuing a policy of "reckless confrontation" and defaming the North's dignity. "This will compel (North Korea) to make a crucial decision," it said, "including the total freezing of North-South relations."

Another editorial put out by the main organ of the Worker's Party unleashed a tirade against Lee, who took office in February on a pledge to pursue relations with North Korea on a reciprocal basis, linking economic aid to the North's denuclearization.

Referring to the South Korean president as a "traitor, U.S. puppet and sycophant," the authors accused Lee of seeking confrontation and a war of aggression against the North, undoing what his two liberal predecessors achieved in improving inter-Korean relations over the past decade.

North Korea's media often release verbal attacks against the South, but the latest tirade on Oct. 16 is the strongest yet and represents an escalation in the North's propaganda war.

Experts say North Korea's threat to sever all inter-Korean ties was made to pressure South Korea into changing its policies and to reignite an ideological dispute within South Korean society. As part of its strategy, the North will gradually increase tension with the Seoul government to gain an upper hand in inter-Korean relations, they said.

"Lee Myung-bak had better come to his senses and bear in mind that he will have no option but to follow in the deplorable footsteps of the preceding dictators who met disgraceful ends if he remains a reckless puppet of the U.S. and ultra-right conservatives," the editorial said.

The South's Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean relations, played down the commentary, saying the threats are the party's way of indirectly voicing their complaints and should not be seen as reflecting North Korea's official position.

Days later, Seoul's Unification Minister Kim Ha-joong said his government will continue to engage Pyongyang despite repeated threats by the communist state. "We will not directly respond to North Korea's negative actions," he said, "but will stay calm and firm while continuing to push for dialogue and cooperation between the two Koreas." His comments were made during a keynote address at a Seoul forum on Oct. 22.

Kim urged Pyongyang to return to dialogue, reaffirming that Seoul respects the two inter-Korean summit accords reached under the South's two previous administrations, aimed at promoting peace and reconciliation, as well as all other bilateral agreements.

Experts here, however, are taking the North's threats seriously, and have not ruled out the possibility that Pyongyang could, in the near future, turn the threats into action.

"For North Korea's part, the warnings are versatile," said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.

He also noted the timing of the threats. North Korea reached a deal with the U.S. on verifying its nuclear claims in return for which the communist nation was taken off the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, securing a chance to tap into international finances and improve long term relations with Washington.

"North Korea is seeking to trigger an ideological rift in South Korea and drive a wedge between South Korea and the U.S.," Yang said. He also noted Pyongyang is attempting to increase pressure on the Lee administration to implement the two inter-Korean summit agreements signed in 2000 and 2007.

Propaganda leaflets floated by South Korean activists over North Korean territory denouncing North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il have become another source of irritation for Pyongyang.

In high-level military talks between army colonels from the two countries earlier this month, the North warned that if South Koreans keep flying the leaflets into its territory, it would harm joint economic projects. South Korean authorities' request that the activists stop flying such leaflets across the heavily-armed border was rebuffed by the civic groups involved.

On Oct. 21, North Korea accused the South Korean government of inciting and condoning the massive distribution of leaflets by local civic groups that "slander" the communist state, threatening "grave consequences" that could develop into a new war.

The Minju Joson, the organ of the North Korean Cabinet, accused the Lee Myung-bak government of supporting the airdrop of leaflets by "conspiring with and patronizing" the groups, in a commentary carried by the country's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).

"What matters is that such scattering of anti-DPRK leaflets may entail very grave consequences," the commentary said. Such a "psychological campaign" will annoy the North Korean army and the people, and any accident along the inter-Korean border may trigger an armed conflict, it said.

The North's warning came days after the Seoul-based Fighters for Free North Korea and two other North Korean defectors' groups flew large balloons carrying tens of thousands of propaganda leaflets over the North timed to coincide with the 63rd anniversary of the country's Workers' Party on Oct. 10.

The two Koreas agreed to cease propaganda activities along their heavily armed border in high-level military talks held in 2004. But South Korean groups have continued to send anti-North leaflets, some of which have been attached to radios that can broadcast information into the North. The groups involved in the campaign have said they will continue spreading leaflets despite threats from the North and their own government's request to stop.

"It is a blatant challenge to the system in the DPRK," read an editorial in the Rodong Sinmun, "and an open declaration of war for the group to dare hurt (the nation's) supreme dignity."

"North Korea seems to be pressing South Korea to handle the issue with more sincerity," said Hong Hyun-ik, senior researcher at Sejong Institute, a Seoul-based security think tank. He also pointed out that Pyongyang was seeking to head off public agitation amid reports of its leader Kim Jong-il's illness.

Inter-Korean relations were further damaged after a North Korean army guard shot dead a female South Korean tourist traveling to Mt. Kumgang on the North's eastern coast in July.

The tour program, launched in 1998 to allow South Koreans a chance to visit the North's scenic Mt. Kumgang region, was indefinitely suspended after the shooting. The inter-Korean industrial complex at Kaesong, however, and tours to the ancient city, which lies just north of the border separating the two countries, continue to operate normally.

Although North Korea severed government-level exchanges after the inauguration of the Lee administration, it has continued to allow irregular civilian visits to its capital Pyongyang.

"The North may believe that thorny South-North ties could pave the way for the United States and Japan to more actively engage affairs on the Korean Peninsula. If that's the case, the North will rachet up tensions with the South to secure leverage in ameliorating relations with the United States and Japan," said Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea expert at Seoul's Dongguk University.

Others point out that the North may have also misconstrued South Korea's response to rumors of Kim Jong-il's alleged poor health as an insult to the regime. Fierce debates erupted here after reports of the ailing leader appeared over contingency plans should Kim die, including a military plan code-named OPLAN 5029. A series of joint military drills between South Korean and U.S. military forces also coincided with the allegations.

Kim Tae-woo, vice president of the state-run Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, says the North's rhetoric is aimed at drawing South Korean society into deep internal division. "The North's tenet focuses on blocking South Korea and the United States from forming a united front, as well as spurring conflicts and divisions between conservatives and liberals in the South," he said.

South Korean civic groups have called for the return of South Koreans kidnapped to the North and held there for several decades. During the decades of enmity following the 1950-53 Korean War, North Korea abducted and held a total of 494 South Koreans, mostly fishermen, according to South Korea's Unification Ministry. Defense Ministry officials estimate there are 563 South Korean POWs still alive in the North, based on reports from POWs who escaped the country. Pyongyang, however, denies holding any South Korean nationals against their will.

In another harsh criticism released on Oct. 19 by Rodong Sinmun, North Korea warned that inter-Korean tension would continue to escalate unless Seoul stops cracking down on pro-unification forces.

"The Lee Myung-bak group's reckless suppression of pro-reunification democratic forces is a frontal challenge to the South Korean people who desire new politics and new life, and a crime against the nation and reunification," read the commentary.

"It is as clear as noonday that if the (Lee Myung-bak) group is allowed to commit the crime of mercilessly suppressing the just patriotic activities for reunification among South Koreans by linking them with the North, all the democratic forces for reunification will be destroyed and the fascist dictatorship revived in South Korea."

The Central Committee of North Korea's Democratic Front for the Reunification of the Fatherland said inter-Korean relations will face a catastrophe if the Seoul government was allowed to continue what it called "fascist suppression of pro-unification forces."

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