- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 15, 2008

South Korean officials are sharply questioning the official account of the killing of a Seoul housewife walking along a beach at a North Korean tourist resort last week, but Pyongyang on Monday continued to block any proposal for a joint investigation of the incident.

The shooting of Park Wang-ja, 53, by North Korean soldiers near the Mount Kumgang resort has strained North-South relations just as new South Korean President Lee Myung-bak was preparing a new overture to improve relations on the divided peninsula.

Seoul has expressed serious doubts about North Korea’s contention that Mrs. Park had strayed into a restricted military area while walking along the beach early Friday morning, and was shot only after failing to heed shouts and a warning shot fired by North Korean soldiers.

Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Ho-nyoun told South Korean reporters in a Sunday briefing that an eyewitness heard only two shots - both of which hit Mrs. Park. The spokesman also said it was highly unlikely Mrs. Park could have wandered so far into a restricted area in the 20 minutes since she was seen leaving her hotel.

“We can hardly understand the North Korean side’s explanation, considering that Park, a woman in her 50s who must have walked wearing a skirt, had been walking on a sandy beach,” he said, according to the Chosun Ilbo, a leading South Korean newspaper.

The 10-year-old Kumgang resort was hailed as a breakthrough in tense North-South relations when it opened, a rare window on the secretive North and a key source of hard currency for Pyongyang. South Korea has suspended tours to the resort in the wake of the shooting.

“The act was wrong by any measure, unimaginable and should not have taken place,” the Unification Ministry said in a statement.

Hong Joon-pyo, parliamentary leader of President Lee’s Grand National Party, pressed Pyongyang on Monday to agree to new talks on the incident, reflecting widening fears the killing could damage prospects for a broader inter-Korean relations.

But the North, which has taken a more adversarial stance since the conservative Mr. Lee’s February election, has rejected all overtures for discussing the shooting or to take up Mr. Lee’s broader call last week for a “full dialogue” on security and political issues.

“Lee’s speech isn’t worth the slightest consideration as it was nothing but a rehashing of what his underlings have been saying all along,” Rodong Sinmun, the newspaper of the ruling North Korea’s Workers Party, said in an editorial Sunday. “The traitor hasn’t budged an inch from his confrontational North Korea policy.”

An official North Korean statement expressed “regret” for Mrs. Park’s death, but said the “responsibility for this incident rests fully with the South.”