North Korea steps up warnings against South

North Korea, which analysts suspect is trying hard to grab the attention of incoming United States president Barack Obama, on Tuesday accused the South of driving the divided peninsula back into war.

It is the latest verbal onslaught against South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, who on Monday put the architect of the policy that has so angered the North in charge of relations between the two Koreas.

“It goes without saying that Lee Myung-bak is the one who has driven the bellicosity high,” the official Rodong Sinmun newspaper said in an editorial carried on North Korea’s KCNA news agency.

South Korea at the weekend placed its military—backed by about 28 000 US troops in the South—on high alert and warned of possible conflicts off the west coast of the peninsula that has been the scene of deadly naval disputes in the past, after Pyongyang said it would wipe out its neighbour.

“Only those who made up their minds to start a war can say this nonsense ... This is hysterical madness and the situation is grave,” the newspaper added.

Analysts say the secretive North, which often uses key events when it wants to make a point to the outside world, is using its latest surge in furious rhetoric to try to attract the attention of Obama, who will be inaugurated later in the day.

Pyongyang’s rocky relationship with the Bush administration has been calmer in the past year or so, after it agreed to start moves to dismantle its nuclear weapons programme. However, multilateral negotiations have been stalled for months over the North’s refusal to allow nuclear material to be taken outside the country.

Many North Korea-watchers say Pyongyang’s ultimate goal, using the threat of nuclear weapons as its leverage, is to have diplomatic relations with Washington and it may be hoping for an easier relationship with the Obama government.

The relationship between the two Koreas—still technically at war—has chilled sharply since Lee took office almost a year ago with a promise to end the free flow of aid to his communist neighbour unless it moved to end its nuclear-weapons programme.

On Monday, he named as his new unification minister conservative scholar Hyun In-taek, a major figure in developing Lee’s policy of heavy investment into the North in exchange for nuclear disarmament and economic reform.

Pyongyang’s leaders have bridled at the policy, which many analysts say would ultimately undermine the authority of Kim Jong-il, who has maintained absolute control while his country’s economy has sunk into ruin.

Since late last year, the North has blocked almost all traffic between the two sides, but late last week did allow in a South Korean team of officials to discuss the possible purchase of fuel rods from its nuclear reactor.

“There are 14 000 fuel rods that are available to buy in North Korea, and the value of the uranium extracted from them would be about $11-million,” said Moon Hong-sik, Research Fellow, Institute for National Security Strategy.

“The significance of bringing the fuel rods out of North Korea itself shows North Korea’s will to follow the steps [of denuclearisation].”

The officials, who visited the North’s Yongbyon nuclear facility, returned to Seoul on Tuesday but declined to comment on their talks.—Reuters

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