N Korea cuts contacts with South as tensions escalate

North Korea announced on Thursday it was suspending all dialogue with South Korea after failing to win an apology for remarks by a Seoul general, its toughest action in a week of growing cross-border tensions.

The communist state’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) blamed Seoul for the North’s decision to suspend dialogue and contacts and to block border crossings by Seoul military and civilian officials.

”Our military does not engage in empty talk,” it said, disregarding an appeal from South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak for ”straightforward” talking to calm the atmosphere.

KCNA was disclosing the contents of a message delivered earlier to Seoul by the North’s chief delegate to inter-Korean military talks, Lieutenant General Kim Yong-Chol.

Kim had demanded an apology for remarks last week by South Korea’s new chairperson of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), General Kim Tae-Young. It interpreted these as authorising a pre-emptive military strike.

Seoul’s Defence Ministry on Wednesday rejected the demand. It said the North was twisting the JCS chief’s remarks and urged it to stop raising tensions.

The North on Thursday dismissed that message as ”excuses” and said its military would take immediate countermeasures.

”The South’s military authorities … will never avoid responsibility for suspending all North-South dialogue and blocking the [border] passage,” KCNA said.

Seoul’s Defence Ministry said it would make no further response.

Lee Myung-Bak, a conservative who took office February 25, has angered the North by adopting a tougher line on relations after a decade-long ”sunshine” engagement policy under liberal presidents.

He says he will link economic aid to the North’s progress in nuclear disarmament and raise its widely criticised human rights policy.

”Since my inauguration, North Korea has intensified tension. But I think relations will not worsen,” Lee said earlier on Thursday, in his first comments since Pyongyang this week labelled him a traitor and United States sycophant.

”What the new government wants is a more straightforward dialogue between South and North Korea … we want North Korea to open its mind for sincere dialogue.”

The flare-up began March 27, when the North expelled South Korean officials from a joint industrial complex. The next day, it test-fired missiles and accused Seoul of breaching the sea border.

Over the weekend, the military demanded its apology and said it would cut off all dialogue if none was forthcoming. Official media threatened to turn the South into ”ashes” should any pre-emptive strike be launched.

Yang Moo-Jin, of the University of North Korean Studies, said the North is following a pre-set plan to raise tensions.

Yang, speaking before the KCNA announcement, said it was expected to ban officials from crossing the land border and was ”highly likely to engage in military muscle-flexing”.

”It may fire short-range missiles in the Yellow Sea, have its warships manoeuvre near the Northern Limit Line [sea border] and engage in provocative activities along the [land] border.”

Kim Yong-Hyun, of the University of Korea, forecast similar actions but said the North would be careful not to trigger an actual clash, since this would harden public opinion in the South.

Analysts believe it wants to sway the outcome of next week’s parliamentary election against the conservatives.

JCS chief Kim reportedly told Parliament last week, in answer to a question, that Seoul would strike North Korea’s nuclear facilities if it showed signs of attacking the South with nuclear weapons.

”What JSC chief Kim said is seen as a natural and ordinary reply,” Lee said. ”It shouldn’t be interpreted differently. So North Korea’s attitude is not desirable.”

Returning to the attack, the North on Thursday said Lee’s government ”is driving North-South relations to confrontation and catastrophe”.– AFP



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Park Chan Kyong
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