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2009/11/19 11:17 KST
NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 81 (November 19, 2009)

  
*** TOPIC OF THE WEEK (Part 2)

N. Korea Extends Olive Branch to South 7 Days after Naval Skirmish

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- Reversing its hard-line stance, North Korea has made an unusual peace overture by vowing efforts to improve relations with South Korea and resolve tension stoked by a recent naval confrontation.

   The conciliatory remarks came in a commentary by Rodong Sinmun, the North's largest newspaper and the mouthpiece of the ruling Workers' Party, on Nov. 17 -- the eve of U.S. President Barack Obama's trip to South Korea. Obama's Seoul visit will wrap up his first Asian tour, which also took him to Tokyo, Beijing and Singapore, and is expected to highlight North Korea issues as well as Seoul-Washington relations.

   "We will continue to make active efforts for the improvement of North-South relations," the paper said in the editorial, which was carried by the North's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).

   North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has called improving inter-Korean relations an "urgent" matter to bring peace to the peninsula, the paper said.

   The comments stand in sharp contrast to the threatening tone the North Korean military took last week, warning of "merciless" military actions over a naval skirmish on Nov. 10. The navies of the South and the North exchanged gunfire along the western maritime border, with both sides blaming each other for initiating the two-minute confrontation.

   "In such circumstances where one party distrusts its dialogue partner and escalates confrontation and even carries out a military provocation, North-South relations cannot be normalized," the paper said. "In the midst of mutual hostility and escalating military tension, nothing but war will break out," it added.

   Rodong Sinmun also criticized the recent completion by South Korea and the U.S. of their joint action scenario, called OPLAN 5029, to deal with contingencies in North Korea.

   "We have taken a number of bold actions for reconciliation and cooperation between the Koreas," the paper said, citing the lifting of border traffic rules and cross-border reunions of separated families. "But the situation in South Korea grows increasingly dubious and completely opposite to the directions and demands of the Korean people."

   The paper stressed that the future of inter-Korean relations "entirely depends on the attitude of the South Korean authorities."

   Yang Moo-jin, professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said North Korea timed its overture to coincide with Obama's summit with President Lee Myung-bak set for Nov. 19. "It says improving relations with South Korea and also the United States is Chairman Kim Jong-il's resolution," Yang said. "There is a more direct message than usual -- 'Let us not be swayed by the naval skirmish and the military hawks and do right by each other between our governments.'"

   South Korea appears to be exercising self-restraint in its dealings with North Korea. On Nov. 16, President Lee asked the nation no to overreact to the naval skirmish between the two Koreas, and said exaggerated reports by local media on inter-Korean tension have caused unnecessary unrest among the public. The president noted there has been no unusual military movement in North Korea since the naval battle off the west coast.

   On Nov. 17, Lee instructed his Cabinet to study the potential for the forestation of North Korea and its impact on the entire Korean Peninsula. Since his inauguration early last year, Lee has occasionally instructed his Cabinet to begin discussions on supporting the forestation of North Korea in preparation for national unification.

   Despite the naval clash, North Korea has continued commercial shipping. On Nov. 16, a North Korean cargo ship dropped off a load of sand in a South Korean port in the North's first commercial trip across the volatile inter-Korean maritime border since last week's naval skirmish.

   The voyage of the 1,296-ton vessel Kumpit suggests Pyongyang's intent to carry on with profitable inter-Korean business projects, treating them as a separate issue from military warnings toward the South.

   Officials from Seoul's Unification Ministry said the Kumpit, which translates as "the light of gold," arrived in the major western port of Incheon on Nov. 14 as the first North Korean ship to come across the Yellow Sea since the naval confrontation. After unloading 2,100 tons of silica sand, the ship returned to the North on Nov. 16.

   The sand is to be delivered to an Incheon-based trading company called Chun Do Co., officials said. A staffer with the firm said on condition of anonymity that it "regularly" brings in North Korean sand on orders from local construction firms.

   South Korea has imported massive amounts of North Korean sand since the historic first inter-Korean summit in 2000. But import restrictions were recently strengthened amid suspicions that profits from sand shipments end up in the pockets of the North Korean military. Last year, sand was the North's largest export item to the South with its trade volume worth US$73.35 million.

   Another North Korean commercial ship returned home later on Nov. 16, officials said. The Songgwangryon, which arrived through the Yellow Sea days before the naval skirmish, returned to the North via a different course along the East Sea, they said. It delivered 4,200 tons of coal to South Korea's eastern port of Pohang.

   In the Nov. 10 skirmish, the South suffered no casualties but one North Korean soldier was killed and three others were wounded, according to South Korean reports. North Korea has argued the South deliberately initiated the battle and demanded an apology.

   North Korea does not recognize the NLL because it was drawn unilaterally at the end of the 1950-53 Korean War by the U.S. commander of U.N. forces that fought on the South Korean side. "There exists in the West Sea of Korea only the extension of the Military Demarcation Line" drawn by the North's military, it said in a statement carried by the KCNA.

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