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2009/02/05 10:59 KST
NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 40 (February 5, 2009)

   *** TOPIC OF THE WEEK (Part 1)

N. Korea Scraps Accords with South, Justifies Nuclear Arms Possession

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korea in recent days has hurled a string of bellicose threats against South Korea, declaring it is scrapping all political and military accords with Seoul and even threatening armed conflict. Experts agree there are multiple aims behind Pyongyang's actions, including challenging Seoul's hardline policies and gaining leverage over Washington in future disarmament talks.

   On Jan. 30, the North's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland, an organization dealing with South Korean affairs, said all agreements preventing confrontation between the two Koreas would be nullified, including one covering a maritime border on the West Sea (Yellow Sea) -- the scene of bloody naval clashes in 1999 and 2002.

   Pyongyang's announcement came as the new U.S. administration began reviewing its North Korea policy. Given the timing, many analysts suspect the move was aimed at drawing Washington's attention to the stalled negotiations on North Korea's nuclear program and ensuring Pyongyang remains a diplomatic priority for U.S. President Barack Obama.

   They add the North is also hoping to put pressure on conservative South Korean President Lee Myung-bak to alter his hardline stance on inter-Korean relations and to drum up political support at home.

   Since the 1970s, the two Koreas have signed a series of agreements on non-aggression and cooperation that the North has flouted repeatedly, rendering the pacts little more than symbolic accords.

   But the latest threatening remarks by the North's committee mark the first time that North Korea has officially nullified the accords. "The confrontation between the North and the South in the political and military fields has been put to such extremes that inter-Korean relations have reached the brink of war," the committee said in a statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).

   It went on to blast Lee for "ruthlessly scrapping" pacts reached at historic inter-Korean summits in 2000 and 2007. "The group of traitors has already reduced all the agreements reached between the North and the South in the past to dead documents," it said. "Under such a situation, it is self-evident that there is no need for the DPRK (North Korea) to remain bound to those North-South agreements."

   The statement came less than two weeks after the North's army threatened an "all-out confrontational posture" against Seoul. On Jan.17, its army General Staff warned it would not allow intrusions by South Korean vessels into the disputed West Sea waters.

   The North has never recognized the Northern Limit Line, a sea border drawn unilaterally by U.S.-led United Nations forces after the 1950-1953 Korean War. Although the line has served as a de facto border, North Korea has frequently demanded it be redrawn further south -- a move Seoul has consistently rejected. Six South Korean soldiers were killed in a naval clash in June 2002 in the area, with North Korean casualties believed to be much higher. In June 1999, a similar skirmish killed dozens of North Korean sailors.

   South Korea has expressed regret over Pyongyang's hostile posturing and pledged "firm counteraction" against any violation of the sea border. The Unification Ministry called on the North to stop raising tension and return to dialogue, while the Defense Ministry said the military is on enhanced alert around the West Sea, though no unusual signs have been spotted along the border. The Navy has reportedly deployed a 4,500-ton destroyer and ordered forces there to be fully prepared against any North Korean provocation.

   "Our government expresses deep regret to North Korea for unilaterally scrapping the agreements," Kim Ho-nyoun, spokesman for Seoul's Unification Ministry handling North Korean affairs, said in a press conference. "We urge North Korea to accept our call for dialogue as soon as possible," he continued. The spokesman said the 1991 accord could not be abolished unilaterally by the North.

   Inter-Korean relations have steadily deteriorated since Lee's inauguration last February, with the government adopting a tougher position on North Korea than its two liberal predecessors.

   Lee froze economic and humanitarian aid to the communist nation, prompting Pyongyang to cut off dialogue with Seoul. His policy of linking inter-Korean rapprochement to North Korea's progress in denuclearization and comments saying he would review past summit agreements has been harshly criticized by Pyongyang, which has repeatedly labeled the South Korean leader a "traitor."

   Last December, Pyongyang expelled hundreds of South Koreans from a joint industrial complex in the North and tightened border controls in protest over Seoul's hardline policy.

   Pyongyang's latest threats followed Lee's nomination of a hawkish scholar as Seoul's new unification minister, an appointment North Korea has called an "outright challenge."

   Hyun In-taek, a political science professor at Korea University, was a key architect of Lee's so-called "denuclearization, openness, 3000" policy on North Korea. The term refers to Lee's pledge to help North Korea achieve US$3,000 per-capita income for North Koreans if the socialist country opens its society and denuclearizes. In line with that policy, Lee suspended South Korea's customary rice and fertilizer aid to the North.

   On Feb. 2, North Korea also vowed to hold onto its nuclear weapons until the United States removes all "nuclear threats" against it. The warning came after similar statements failed to draw a reaction from the new U.S. administration.

   "The Lee Myung-bak group of traitors should clearly understand that the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is by no means an issue of 'dismantling the North's nuclear weapons,'" a spokesman for the General Staff of the Korean People's Army said in an interview carried by the North's official KCNA. "The DPRK will never 'dismantle its nuclear weapons' unless nukes in South Korea are dismantled to remove the nuclear threat from the U.S.," the spokesman said.

   A similar nuclear warning was issued by the North's Foreign Ministry on Jan. 13. Pyongyang claims it was forced to develop nuclear weapons in the face of "nuclear threats" from the U.S. military stationed in South Korea. Seoul officials deny South Korea has any atomic weapons.

   The U.S. military withdrew its nuclear arsenal from the South in the early 1990s, following an inter-Korean denuclearization pact in 1992. Still, Washington has said it will provide a nuclear umbrella for South Korea if it is attacked by the North.

   The North's military spokesman also called for "nuclear disarmament" talks between all nuclear powers. Analysts interpret the message as Pyongyang's bid for bilateral negotiations with Washington. "The Lee group should know well that the only way of eliminating nukes under the present situation where the hostile relations persist is for those parties concerned that have nukes to opt for nuclear disarmament simultaneously," the spokesman said.

   Washington and Seoul officials have downplayed North Korea's recent warnings, with State Department spokesman Robert Wood saying, " this type of rhetoric is distinctly not helpful." Wood also affirmed Washington's committment to the six-party talks.

   Contrary to experts' analyses, Pyongyang has claimed its escalation of hostilities is directly aimed at the hard-line policies of South Korea's President. The North's main newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, took a harsher tone in a commentary following the military announcement, saying an armed conflict could possibly erupt on the Korean Peninsula if Seoul ignores its warnings.

   While it is unclear how the Obama administration will choose to respond, the arrival of a group of seven former U.S. government officials and experts in Pyongyang on Feb. 3 may be a sign of warmer ties down the road.

   The group's visit marks the first major civilian exchange between the two nations since Obama's inauguration last month. Stephen Bosworth, a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea and reportedly a candidate for the post of special envoy to Pyongyang, was among those visiting.

   North Korea and its five dialogue partners will also convene a meeting later this month in Moscow on ways to establish a regional peace mechanism.

  (END)