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2009/03/12 10:55 KST
NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 45 (March 12, 2009)

   *** TOPIC OF THE WEEK (Part 2)

N. Korea Severs Communication Channel to Protest Military Drill

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korea severed a final military communications channel used to notify Pyongyang of all cross-border traffic, effectively sealing off the border and leaving hundreds of South Koreans temporarily stranded in the North early this week. The move came as a joint military exercise got underway between South Korean and U.S. forces, which Pyongyang has denounced as "war preparations."

   "It is nonsensical to maintain normal communications channel at a time when the South Korean puppets are getting frantic with the above-said war exercises, leveling guns at fellow countrymen in league with foreign forces," a spokesman for the General Staff of the (North) Korean People's Army (KPA) said on March 9 in a statement carried by the North's state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). "As an immediate measure we will enforce a more strict military control and cut off the north-south military communications," the military spokesman said, adding the channel would remain closed for the duration of the exercise.

   The move left over 500 South Koreans stranded at the Kaesong industrial complex, an inter-Korean economic project located just north of the border, as well as the tourist destination of Mt. Kumgang on the North's east coast.

   When the border reopened on March 10, Seoul's Unification Ministry confirmed that 213 people and 151 vehicles returned from Kaesong, while 11 people returned from Mt. Kumgang. It also said that 247 people had crossed into the North heading to the Kaesong complex and that three individuals had gone to Mt. Kumgang. Yet with the communications line down, all traffic across the heavily-armed inter-Korean border will have to be approved by the North via fax or hand written letters bearing the names and types of cargo to be transported.

   The one-day border closure came as South Korean and U.S. forces launched their annual Key Resolve and Foal Eagle military exercise that the North describes as a rehearsal for a "second Korean War." The drill, which Washington insists is purely defensive, mobilizes more than 25,000 U.S. troops, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier and tens of thousands of South Korean soldiers. U.S. General Walter Sharp, head of the 28,500-strong U.S. forces here, rebutted Pyongyang's claim and said the event was a routine training exercise.

   Prior to the launch of the 12-day drill, Pyongyang released a series of provocative statements, including a warning that it could no longer guarantee the safety of commercial South Korean airliners passing through its airspace.

   The threat drew a sharp response from the International Civil Aviation Organization, a United Nations agency responsible for aviation safety, which decided to send a letter of protest to the North, South Korea's Foreign Ministry said. Seoul described the threat as "inhuman." Korean Air and Asiana Airlines -- the nation's two largest airlines -- immediately rerouted their flights.

   Pyongyang also reiterated its "sovereign right to space development," warning that any attempt to intercept a planned rocket launch would provoke a war. The aviation warning was seen by analysts as a move to clear the North's airspace before launching what is believed to be its long-range Taepodong-2 ballistic missile, technically capable of striking parts of the U.S. West Coast.

   Pyongyang has ordered its military to remain on full combat readiness. "We will retaliate any act of intercepting our satellite for peaceful purposes with prompt counter strikes by the most powerful military means," a spokesman for the General Staff of the KPA said, specifically naming South Korea, the U.S. and Japan. "Shooting our satellite for peaceful purposes will precisely mean a war," the statement carried by the KCNA said.

   Experts say that by temporarily shutting the border, the North successfully ratcheted up tension on the Korean peninsula while not endangering operations at the Kaesong complex, a valued source of revenue for the impoverished nation.

   The Kaesong complex was built after the first South-North summit in 2000. More than 90 South Korean firms operate there, producing kitchenware, watches and clothes with some 38,200 North Korean employees. "The North also has no intention of giving up the Kaesong complex, so it probably thought that the temporary closure was enough," said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul. He stressed that while there may be further security provocations, the North will likely avoid jeapordizing inter-Korean economic deals.

   Others say North Korea's latest coercive measures are aimed at pressuring Seoul's conservative government into changing its hardline policy and the new U.S. administration into quickly starting dialogue with Pyongyang. "North Korea believes the U.S. has no other choice but to hold dialogue. So it's saying, 'Let us talk before the situation gets worse," said Hong Hyun-ik, an analyst with the independent Sejong Institute near Seoul. "Toward South Korea, it is getting ready for a military action. For North Korea, military clashes do not mean the loss of lives but the effects it will produce -- to strengthen internal control and further pressure South Korea into abandoning its policy," Hong said.

   The international community, meanwhile, has urged Pyongyang to refrain from its usual brinksmanship and return to dialogue with South Korea. On March 9, U.S. State Department spokesman Robert Wood warned North Korea to halt its threats against the South over the joint-military exercise.

   South Korea demanded the North immediately withdraw its decision to shut down the communications link. "Our government has been dealing with (North Korea's recent measures) with patience," said Seoul's Unification Ministry spokesman, Kim Ho-nyoun. "We demand that North Korea immediately stop its denunciations (of South Korea) and tension-raising behavior."

   The heightened tensions coincided with a visit to South Korea by the new U.S. special representative on North Korea, Stephen Bosworth, who appealed on March 7 for Pyongyang to refrain from threats and return to dialogue. "Obviously, this is something that we regret," Bosworth told reporters after a series of meetings with President Lee Myung-bak and other top-ranking officials in Seoul. Bosworth was in Seoul as part of an Asian tour that also took him to Beijing and Tokyo to discuss North Korean issues.

   The North's planned rocket launch and its latest flurry of bellicose behavior have also prompted caution in Seoul and Washington as to when the six-party denuclearization talks with the North will resume. The talks remain stalled over a dispute on how to verify the North's past nuclear activities. The North also accuses the U.S. of secretly deploying nuclear arms in South Korea and is calling for simultaneous inspections.