*** INTER-KOREAN RELATIONS
N. Korea Again Designates 'Naval Firing Zones' along Sea Border
SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korea has raised the possibility of a further show of force in the East and Yellow seas by temporarily designating six regions along its maritime border with South Korea as "naval firing zones," a government Web site said Feb. 19.
North Korea has unilaterally notified the South it will conduct artillery fire drills in four areas in the Yellow Sea and two areas in the East Sea for three days from Feb. 20, Seoul's National Oceanographic Research Institute said on its Web site.
The designated regions are all in North Korea's own territory, north of the Northern Limit Line (NLL), the de facto maritime border between the two Koreas.
Pyongyang's newest notification came less than a month after it raised military tensions by firing artillery shells into its waters near the sea border for three consecutive days.
The communist state has designated naval firing zones two times this month, each for two or three days, but never actually conducted the drills, according to Seoul's defense ministry.
"North Korea has warned South Korean ships via the Navtex service to stay clear of the areas from 7 a.m. through 8 p.m. through Feb. 22," the oceanographic research institute said.
South Korean defense ministry officials, meanwhile, said the ministry has not detected any unusual military activity in the North.
From Jan. 27-29, the North is estimated to have fired around 350 rounds in the Yellow Sea waters north of the NLL.
The NLL was unilaterally drawn by the U.S.-led U.N. Command at the end of the Korean War, and the communist North has refused to honor it. The two sides fought bloody skirmishes near the border in 1999, 2002 and in November last year.
Meanwhile, a South Korean defense report said Feb. 19 that North Korea
has beefed up military deployments along the maritime border with South Korea in the Yellow Sea by deploying dozens of multiple rocket launchers.
Since a navy skirmish last November, the communist North has reinforced defense near the western sea border and increased drills near the area, according to a report the defense ministry submitted to the parliament.
South Korea sees the multiple rocket launchers as key threat to the security of its capital and adjacent areas. One launcher can shoot up to 22 rockets with a range of up to 60 kilometers.
"We have prepared ourselves for 33 possible North Korean attack scenarios," the report said, adding South Korea will immediately scramble F-15K fighter jets should it detect an air offensive from the North. "We will shoot any enemy aircraft down using our right to self-defense in case of an invasion or provocation," it added.
Seoul Rejects Buddhist Group's Request for Visit to North Korea
SEOUL (Yonhap) -- The government has turned down a request by South Korea's largest Buddhist order to allow thousands of adherents to visit North Korea as part of religious exchanges between the divided countries, officials said Feb. 19.
The Jogye order earlier this month announced a plan for 4,000 members to travel to a temple located in the North's Mt. Kumgang region in March. Jogye officials said counterparts in the North accepted a proposal for talks during the visit.
The announcement came after the head of the order visited the communist nation as part of religious exchanges.
Seoul's Unification Ministry, in charge of inter-Korean affairs, said, however, that the timing of such a visit was not right, given recent talks between the two Koreas that ended without agreement on resuming cross-border tours.
"With the current state of inter-Korean relations uncertain, such a large scale visit to Mt. Kumgang to contact working-level (North Korean) counterparts does not seem relevant," an official at the Unification Ministry said. "Therefore, we requested the Jogye order to refrain (from the visit)."
The trip was expected to mark the largest group of South Korean civilians to travel to the North Korean mountain resort since Seoul halted tours there after one of its nationals was shot dead by a North Korean soldier near the resort in 2008.
The North Korean temple reopened in 2007 after five years of renovations with the help of the Jogye order, but soon became off-limits to South Korean tourists because of the shooting incident at the mountain.
S. Korea to Demand Alternative Venue for Military Talks with N. Korea
SEOUL (Yonhap) -- South Korea will likely accept North Korea's proposal to hold military talks next week but plans to demand that the meeting be held at the border, rather than in a North Korean border city as proposed by Pyongyang, officials said Feb. 22.
Earlier on Feb. 22, North Korea proposed that working-level military officials meet in Kaesong on March 2 to discuss border transit, customs and communication issues in and out of an inter-Korean industrial complex in the North Korean city.
The counteroffer came in response to the South's earlier proposal that the sides meet on Feb. 23 at the House of Peace, located on the South Korean side of the truce village of Panmunjom, inside the Demilitarized Zone that separate the two Koreas.
It was the first time for the communist North to propose holding military talks within its territory, a move seen by experts as an attempt to gain an upper-hand in these longstanding issues and overall relations with South Korea.
"The two Koreas have never held military talks in Kaesong. It has always been in Panmunjom. We will likely request the North to meet under customary practices," said Won Tae-jae, spokesman of Seoul's defense ministry. Won did not raise any particular objection over the proposed date, suggesting that the South is fine with it.
South Korea has long demanded that Pyongyang ease restrictions concerning communications, customs clearance and passage of South Korean workers to and from the Kaesong complex, where some 110 South Korean firms employ about 42,000 North Korean workers. If held, the talks next month would mark the first time that military officials from the two divided countries have met since October 2008.
The impoverished North, which relies on outside aid to feed its 24 million people, has made several attempts to reach out to the South since last summer in an about-face that analysts say shows the regime is feeling the pain of U.N. sanctions imposed for its nuclear test in May last year.
Still, the North has been reluctant to accept South Korea's requests for easier access to Kaesong and other measures aimed at boosting the park's competitiveness, as the regime is concerned such moves could shake its hold over the reclusive nation.
Dismissing the issue of eased border transit as unessential, Pyongyang is demanding pay raises for its workers at the Kaesong complex. The minimum monthly wage for a North Korean worker remains less than US$58.
South Korea Sends Anti-flu Aid to North Korea
SEOUL (Yonhap) -- South Korea delivered anti-flu aid to North Korea by sending truckloads of sanitizer across their heavily fortified border on Feb. 23, the latest sign of a continuing thaw between the divided countries, the Unification Ministry said.
The provision worth 1 billion won (about US$863,000) came after South Korea offered Tamiflu in December in the first humanitarian assistance to the communist North since President Lee Myung-bak took office in Seoul in early 2008.
North Korea thanked South Korean authorities for the earlier delivered Tamiflu medication, the ministry said in a statement after 20 South Korean trucks returned from the North Korean border town of Kaesong, where they had unloaded 200,000 liters of hand sanitizer.
"The North expressed gratitude to our side, saying the Tamiflu delivered on Dec. 12 was effective," the ministry said, adding the North promised to update the South within 30 days on the distribution of the sanitizer.
North Korea first acknowledged cases of Influenza A infection in December, but has yet to report any flu-related deaths.
The sanitizer aid came a day after the North proposed holding military talks March 2 on easing border restrictions that slow traffic and communications in and out of a joint factory park in Kaesong. South Korea also wants such talks and had proposed a meeting date earlier than the North's proposal.
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