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“Under the ruling party chairman’s request, we have decided to stop sending fliers for the time being and observe changes in North Korea’s attitude,” the groups said in a statement carried by the Yonhap news wire. “This decision has nothing to do with North Korea’s threats.”

North Korean media have called Mr. Lee “despicable human scum” and recently threatened to turn the South into “debris.”

Over the weekend, the North said it would not acknowledge Japan’s presence at the talks until it sends aid.

Last week, Pyongyang expelled all but a skeleton staff of southerners from a southern-funded tourism project at Mount Kumgang and a factory zone at Kaesong.

Since the North met bilaterally with the U.S. in October, Washington has removed the communist state from its official list of terrorist-sponsoring nations. The North responded by denying it had ever told the U.S. it would allow samples to be taken from its nuclear sites.

More troubles could lie ahead. A Defense Ministry report to Seoul’s National Assembly last week stated that it was preparing for naval skirmishes - a tactic North Korea used in 1999 and 2002 - or for North Korean attempts to seize South Korean fishing boats.

Korea University international security specialist Kim Byung-gi estimated that the Kaesong industrial park is responsible for 6 percent to 8 percent of North Korea’s total foreign currency earnings.

However, the political aspects of the projects appear more important to Pyongyang.

“It is leverage, but it is political and symbolic leverage,” said Andrei Lankov, a North Korea authority at Seoul’s Kookmin University. “The South Korean public wants stable and ostensibly good relations with North Korea, as they know that if North Korea becomes noisy, it will have an adverse impact on the South’s image and credit ratings.”

Other analysts say the Kumgang and Kaesong moves are intended to insulate North Korea during a period of uncertain leadership.

“I think they have a genuine political need to close off the country at this time from outside influences,” said Brian Myers, a North Korea specialist at Dongseo University. “We are all starting to realize that there is something very wrong with Kim Jong-il: If you assume that he is in very poor health or dying or already dead, the first step the country would have to take would be to seal the borders.”

Recent reports in South Korea, citing a brain scan supposedly secured from intelligence sources, suggest that Mr. Kim, 66, has suffered a stroke or series of strokes in recent months, which may have left his left arm paralyzed. A number of photos released by the North in recent days show Mr. Kim with his left hand gloved or tucked inside his tunic.