Hermit North Korea reopens border with South

North Korea said on Monday it would reopen its border with the South, ending a self-imposed blockade on a vital source of income for Pyongyang’s leaders as their ravaged economy is squeezed by tightening United Nations sanctions.

It is the latest step by the hermit North to resume some sort of relationship with an outside world from which it has been all but isolated by its months of military grandstanding, including a second nuclear test in May and a series of missile launches.

But in a vivid reminder that tensions still run high on the peninsula, North Korea’s KCNA news agency immediately followed the report on the border agreement with one warning of a “merciless and prompt annihilating strike”, including nuclear weapons, if upcoming United States and South Korean military drills commit even the slightest infringement on its sovereignty”.

The agreement to ease restrictions on the border and restart lucrative tourism to the North came at a meeting between the reclusive state’s ruler Kim Jong-il and the head of the South Korean Hyundai Group, who had gone to Pyongyang to seek the release of a worker detained for about five months for insulting the north’s leaders.

The visit followed hot on the heels of one earlier in the month by former US president Bill Clinton, who also met Kim, to win the release of two jailed American journalists.

“North Korea ... wants a better relationship with the US. In order for that to happen, they must have a well-established relationship with South Korea,” said Cho Myung-chul, an expert on North Korea at the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy in Seoul.

Relations between the two Koreas, technically at war for more than half a century, have become increasingly bitter after the South’s conservative President Lee Myung-bak took office 18 months ago, ending what had been years of plentiful aid unless his neighbour gave up its nuclear weapons programme.

The North says it needs a nuclear deterrent as long as US troops—currently about 28 000—are stationed in the South.

Sanctions bite
But the efforts to create an atomic arsenal have meant tighter UN sanctions, which analysts say are starting to bite, especially its profitable weapons exports.

Some analyst say the North, whose 23-million population is routinely on the edge of famine, could be facing another poor harvest this year.

While the recent nuclear and missile tests infuriated the international community, analysts say they have helped Kim’s stature at home, notably with his hard-line military.

North Korea’s media has also been careful to portray both recent visits as tribute to iron leader Kim (67), whose health is the subject of intense speculation and believed to be trying to ensure his youngest son becomes the third generation in the family to head the destitute communist dynasty.

KCNA said Kim on Friday “granted a long audience to and had a cordial talk with Hyon Jong Un, chairperson of the Hyundai Group, and her party on a visit to Pyongyang, and complied with all her requests”.

The Hyundai Group runs tourism to the North and operates the Kaesong industrial park just across the border and a lucrative source of income for Pyongyang’s leadership.

The group is linked to one of the most powerful corporate families in South Korea, one of whose senior members is also a close political ally to President Lee.

Yang Moon-soo, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies, estimated that Pyongyang had earned about $30-million last year from its business with the Hyundai Group.

“Although this might not look like a great amount to South Korea, it means a great deal to North Korea.”

Cold war frontier
Tours across the Cold War’s last frontier have ground to a halt and the industrial park itself has looked under threat as relations between the two, technically at war for more than half a century, have worsened.

Under the latest agreement, land passage across their heavily armed border which was all but blocked late last year will be resumed, allowing normal traffic to the Kaesong factory park.

It will also allow the restart of tourism to the scenic Mt Kumgang resort, halted a year ago after a North Korean soldier shot dead a tourist from the South who had wandered into a military area.

Pyongyang also agreed to let Hyundai launch tours to the Mt Paektu, a sacred mountain in Korea, and to allow the resumption in October of the reunion of families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War.—Reuters

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