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NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 249 (February 14, 2013)
*** TOPIC OF THE WEEK (Part 2)

Changes in S. Korean President-elect Park's North Korea Policy Seem Inevitable

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korea's third nuclear test is heralding further strains in South-North Korean relations and jeopardizing President-elect Park Geun-hye's hope for improved inter-Korean relations based on confidence building between the two Koreas.

   North Korea carried out a long-threatened nuclear test on Feb. 12, drawing strong international condemnations and sending the already high tensions on the Korean Peninsula soaring higher. The test occurred exactly two months after its long-range rocket launch.

   The blast "was conducted in a safe and perfect way on a high level with the use of a smaller and light A-bomb unlike the previous ones, yet with great explosive power," Pyongyang's official Korean Central News Agency announced the day of the test.

   The 6-7 kiloton nuclear blast could force Park, who takes office on Feb. 25, to reassess her "Korean Peninsula confidence building process," which she has said is the cornerstone for better inter-Korean relations, North Korea analysts in Seoul say.

   The process, among other things, calls for building mutual confidence and trust through economic cooperation projects as the North's denuclearization plan makes headway. The process, if successful, would eventually lead to "normalization" of South-North relations and bring an end to cross-border confrontation.

   Park strongly condemned the North's nuclear test in a statement issued after an hour-long emergency meeting with her transition team and vowed her government will not tolerate a nuclear-armed North. She said that her administration will build up strong deterrence to counter any further North Korean threats, while at the same time work with the international community to persuade Pyongyang to give up its nuclear ambitions.

   The recent remarks mean that there will be no partial lifting of the sanctions Seoul imposed on North Korea after one of its warships was torpedoed by its Northern neighbor in March 2010. The sanctions included a near blanket ban on cross-border investment and trade.

   "I strongly condemn North Korea's third nuclear test that was carried out in spite of strong warnings from us and the international community," Park said. "North Korea's nuclear test is a grave threat to the Korean Peninsula and international peace, hampers inter-Korean trust-building and undermines efforts for peace." Park has repeatedly said North Korea's nuclear weapons program is intolerable.

   Park's strong accusation of the North's provocation is in line with the stance of the incumbent government and the U.S. administration.

   Park confirmed her stance of not tolerating the North's nuclear armament in a meeting with President Lee Myung-bak earlier on Feb. 12. The two shared the view that the ruling and opposition political parties should make supra-partisan cooperation in coping with North Korea's nuclear ambitions.

   The government strongly condemned the test as a blatant violation of U.N. resolutions, an "unacceptable threat" to peace and security on the divided peninsula and a "head-on challenge" to the international community. It also vowed to make Pyongyang pay a "grave" price for the provocation.

   U.S. President Barack Obama also pledged unswerving unity in coping with North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile threats in a phone conversation with his South Korean counterpart Lee on Feb. 12. Obama agreed to work together on several measures to punish Pyongyang for its continued provocative acts and to curb its drive for weapons of mass destruction, according to the White House.

   "They agreed to work closely together, including at the United Nations Security Council, to seek a range of measures aimed at impeding North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile programs and reducing the risk of proliferation," the White House said in a press release.

   "President Obama unequivocally reaffirmed that the United States remains steadfast in its defense commitments to the Republic of Korea, including the extended deterrence offered by the U.S. nuclear umbrella," it added.

   Inter-Korean relations have been in the doldrums since the launch of the incumbent government of Lee, who maintained a tougher stance compared with former Presidents Roh Moo-hyun and Kim Dae-jung.

   Park has suggested a more flexible policy with the North than Lee, but stressed the need of North Korea's cooperation. The nuclear test is jeopardizing inter-Korean relations that could otherwise make headway under the incoming Park Geun-hye administration.

   "On the whole, Park has made clear on numerous occasions that she cannot allow the North to have nuclear weapons, yet stressed her commitment to engage the communist country in dialogue to deal with all outstanding issues," said one source closely related to the presidential transition team.

   The source said that the North's third nuclear detonation, conducted in defiance of international warnings, will effectively tie up Seoul's options, since South Korea will likely join other countries in punishing its communist neighbor for its latest provocation. Such a stance can cause the North to take a more hard-line approach, making it harder for South Korea to make any conciliatory overtures.

   Some North Korea analysts said depending on how the international community and South Korea react to the fresh nuclear test, inter-Korean relations may be stalled for up to five more years, until a new administration takes office.

   "Under the present circumstances, it may be hard for the Park administration to make conciliatory gestures, while the North may opt to ignore talks altogether," said Chang Yong-seok, a senior researcher at the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University.

   Right after the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution condemning its long-range rocket on Dec. 12, North Korea declared that there will be no more denuclearization talks on the Korean Peninsula.

   Chang speculated that if North Korea sticks to declaration, North-South relations will have to be snagged for a long time.

   In a recent international security forum in Seoul, South Korean and U.S. experts predicted South Korean President-elect Park's pledge for engagement with the communist regime would be revoked if the North went through with its threat for third nuclear test.

   "If North Korea uses the coming year to attack South Korea again or conduct another test of a nuclear device or long-range rocket, the possibility of significant near-term improvement in the situation on the Korean Peninsula will evaporate," said David Straub, associate director for the Korean Studies Program at Stanford University, in a forum hosted by Yonhap News Agency and Stanford University on Feb. 5.

   The North's nuclear test is likely to prod the U.N. Security Council to take another sanction against Pyongyang, which could possibly cause the Communist regime to respond with harsh actions.

   In a statement issued through its Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland on Jan. 25, North Korea said that if the South directly joined U.N. sanctions against it, it would consider the move as a declaration of war.

   Concern persists that the North may actually incite armed provocations, especially along the Northern Limit Line (NLL) that serves as a de facto maritime border in the Yellow Sea. The navies of both sides bloodily clashed twice along the disputed sea border, resulting in the deaths of dozens of sailors on both sides.