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NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 30 (November 20, 2008)

All Headlines 10:29 November 20, 2008

*** TOPIC OF THE WEEK (Part 1)

Seoul Seeks Dialogue with Pyongyang amid Strained Relations

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- Despite strained inter-Korean relations, the South Korean government is seeking new avenues to dialogue with North Korea to discuss various bilateral issues, including Pyongyang's recent threat to further restrict the shared border. The Seoul government's efforts to mend the damaged can be seen as part of a larger goal of achieving co-existence and co-prosperity with the communist neighbor.

Nevertheless, the South Korean government is still outwardly sticking to its official line of opening and reforming the North beginning with its denuclearization. Relations have worsened since South Korean President Lee Myung-bak took office with a pledge to link inter-Korean relations to the North's nuclear disarmament.

In another severe blow to the chilled relations, the North said it will strictly limit border crossings, shutter its Red Cross mission at the truce village of Panmunjom and cut some of its direct telephone links between the two countries.

South Korea on Nov. 13 scurried to deal with North Korea's slew of threats, with key government agencies and ministers in Seoul urging Pyongyang to reverse its decision to restrict the inter-Korean border return to the dialogue table.

The Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs, said on Nov. 13 it will deal with any threats from North Korea without changing its policy toward the North. "The government will calmly deal with this situation based on its policy of 'mutual benefits and common prosperity," Kim Ho-nyoun, spokesman for Seoul's Unification Ministry, said in a press briefing.

He confirmed that North Korean delegates pulled out of their Red Cross office at Panmunjom but said hot lines for maritime affairs and aviation cooperation installed there were still working in the morning despite the threats.

In a message sent to Seoul on Nov. 12, the North Korean military threatened to "strictly restrict and cut off all the overland passages" through the inter-Korean border from Dec. 1, citing South Korea's failure to abide by the existing inter-Korean summit agreements.

The North also said in a separate statement on the same day that it was closing its Red Cross liaison office and all direct telephone links at the truce village of Panmunjom in retaliation against Seoul's "confrontational" policy.

The North has angrily called for Seoul to stop South Korean civic groups from sending anti-Pyongyang leaflets across the border via balloons. Pyongyang has repeatedly threatened to take retaliatory measures unless Seoul steps in, including possibly shutting down the Kaesong complex.

The North has described the leaflets -- which elaborate on North Korean leader Kim Jong-il's luxurious private life as well as rumors of his illness -- an unpardonable challenge to the North's "supreme sovereignty."

In issuing the threat to control inter-Korean border crossings, spokesmen for the North's military accused the South Korean president of damaging bilateral relations by refusing to carry out agreements made during historic summit meetings between the two countries' leaders in 2000 and 2007.

It is not yet clear whether North Korea intends to close the inter-Korean industrial complex in the North's border city of Kaesong and South Korean tour program there. But experts in Seoul warn that the border restrictions will effectively suspend operations at the Kaesong complex, the last remaining symbol of inter-Korean reconciliation efforts after tours to North Korea's Mt. Kumgang were suspended in July following a shooting death there.

Seoul's Unification Minister Kim Ha-joong also voiced deep concern during his meeting with South Korean investors in the Kaesong complex and demanded that North Korea immediately cancel its plan to shut the overland passages through the inter-Korean border.

Seoul's Defense Ministry urged North Korea to help resume the long-suspended inter-Korean dialogue and offered to help modernize the North's military communication lines. "We proposed the sides hold a meeting to discuss our provision of communications material and equipment to modernize the North's military communication lines," the ministry said.

Meanwhile, South Korea's main opposition party leader on Nov. 13 urged President Lee Myung-bak to "completely alter" his North Korea policy, claiming Seoul's ambiguous position is damaging inter-Korean ties. "We ask the Lee government to make the critical decision right now and start setting up a new North Korea policy from zero ground," Chung Sye-kyun said.

Chung's party has been demanding the Lee government make efforts to implement the two major joint accords, which call for expanded economic cooperation and reunion opportunities for families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War.

Pyongyang's Nov. 12 announcements came about a month after North Korea threatened to cut all ties with Seoul unless it drops what Pyongyang described as "confrontational racket" toward the North.

Lee has come under mounting pressure from liberal politicians and North Korea experts to alter his stance in order to prevent the communist nation from sidelining Seoul in international efforts to end Pyongyang's nuclear arms ambitions. Many analysts have predicted that the North will likely try to alienate South Korea while focusing its energy on improving relations when the U.S. Democratic President-elect Barack Obama takes office in January.

The North's closure of the Red Cross channel will lead to a full suspension of humanitarian programs that arrange temporary reunions between families separated during the 1950-53 Korean War.

Experts say, however, that Pyongyang is unlikely to shut down the Kaesong complex as it is a vital source of revenue for the cash-strapped country, providing nearly US$20 million a year. More than 35,000 North Koreans currently work for 83 South Korean manufacturers in Kaesong.

On Nov. 19, South Korean authorities decided to crackdown on local activists spreading anti-North Korean propaganda leaflets across the inter-Korean border in an apparent bid to appease an angered Pyongyang. "The government will make aggressive efforts to persuade civic groups to refrain from scattering leaflets. The related authorities will cope with such activity within legal boundaries," Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Ho-nyoun said.

The meeting was presided over by Vice Unification Minister Hong Yang-ho and was joined by officials from the presidential office, the prime minister's office, the state intelligence agency, police, foreign ministry, and defense ministry.

Undaunted by the government's move, however, civic groups announced they will fly another set of 100,000 leaflets into the North on Thursday from a border town in Gyeonggi Province.

The North Korean authorities have reponded sensitively to the activity, threatening to expel South Korean workers from the joint industrial complex in the border town of Kaesong.

Meanwhile, the North's main newspaper harshly criticized the Seoul government in its confrontational policy toward the North. The North's Rodong Sinmun, the organ of the Workers' Party, said on Nov. 15 that joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises -- which are designed to prepare for the event of a North Korean invasion -- are criminal acts and escalate the inter-Korean political and military tension.

"The anti-DPRK joint military exercises, the root cause of escalating tension and war on the Korean Peninsula, should be stopped for the peaceful reunification of the country," the paper said in a commentary carried by the North's official Korean Central News Agency.

"The Lee Myung-bak clique of traitors will not be able to escape a severe judgment by history for wrecking peace on the Korean Peninsula and laying big hurdles in the way of improving the inter-Korean relations and achieving the cause of national reunification by frantically staging dangerous war exercises against the DPRK with outside forces," the paper said.

Analysts say the North's renewed threats appear to be aimed at pressuring Seoul to drop its hardline stance towards Pyongyang and to take the upper hand in future denuclearization talks following U.S. Democrat Barack Obama's presidential election victory last week. On the campaign trail, Obama repeatedly stated his willingness to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and voiced criticism of the outgoing George W. Bush administration's refusal to engage in diplomacy with Pyongyang.

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