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2008/10/16 15:33 KST
(News Focus) Already-troubled inter-Korean ties risk being severed

   By Lee Chi-dong
SEOUL, Oct. 16 (Yonhap) -- North Korea has signaled it may ditch all remaining economic cooperation projects with South Korea, putting fragile inter-Korean ties in jeopardy.

   The Rohdong Sinmun, published by the North's ruling Workers' Party, argued that the conservative South Korean administration is continuing a policy of "reckless confrontation" with Pyongyang and defaming its dignity.

   "This will compel it (North Korea) to make a crucial decision including the total freeze of the North-South relations," it said.

   The newspaper called President Lee Myung-bak a "traitor, U.S. puppet and sycophant."
North Korean propaganda media usually churn out verbal attacks against South Korea but Thursday's criticisms and threats were the strongest yet.

   The South's Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean relations, played down the commentary, saying it expresses the party's complaints in an indirect way, rather than reflecting North Korea's official position.

   But experts on North Korea here took it seriously. They did not rule out the possibility that Pyongyang will put the threats into action in the near future.

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

   He noted the timing of the threats. North Korea reached a deal with the U.S. on verifying its nuclear claims. In return, 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 relations with Washington in the long term.

   "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 said Pyongyang was also attempting to increase pressure on the Lee administration to implement the two inter-Korean summit agreements signed by his liberal predecessors in 2000 and 2007.

   Lee, who favors reciprocity in dealing with the North, vowed to selectively implement the deals in consideration of the denuclearization process, financial capacity, and public opinion.

   South Korea's annual shipment of about 400,000 tons of rice and about 300,000 tons of fertilizer in humanitarian aid has been suspended under the Lee government.

   Experts also said North Korea were annoyed by "propaganda leaflets," floated by South Korean activists, denouncing its leader Kim Jong-Il.

   In army colonel-level talks with the South early this month, the North warned that if South Koreans keep flying "propaganda leaflets" into its territory, it would harm the joint economic projects. The South Korean authorities asked the activists to stop flying such leaflets across the heavily-armed border but they balked at the request.

   The Rohdong Sinmun said, "It is a blatant challenge to the system in the DPRK (North Korea) and an open declaration of a war for the group to dare hurt its (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.

   The two Koreas' relations have worsened further since a North Korean army guard shot dead a South Korean housewife traveling to Mount Geumgang on the North's eastern coast in July.

   The tour program for South Koreans, launched in 1998, was indefinitely suspended after the incident.

   But the inter-Korean industrial complex in Kaesong and the tour operation for South Koreans to the ancient city, just north of the border separating the two countries, are operating normally.

   Although North Korea has severed government-level exchanges under the Lee administration, it has also allowed irregular civilian visits to its capital Pyongyang.