SEOUL, South Korea | North Korea Wednesday threatened to close border crossings with South Korea Dec. 1, a move that would halt industrial and tourism projects that have been the main tangible fruit of ten years of engagement.
North Korea’s state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) accused the Seoul government of failing to honor agreements, adding, “the South Korean puppet authorities should never forget that present inter-Korean relations are at the crucial crossroads of existence and total severance.”
The catalyst appeared to be South Korea’s acceptance last week of a United Nations resolution condemning North Korean human rights abuses. The rumored ill-health of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il may also have been a factor.
South Korea’s Unification Ministry called the North Korean decision “regrettable.” Hyundai Asan, the Seoul-based company which operates inter-Korean projects, declined comment.
If the border is closed, operations at an inter-Korean joint industrial zone outside the North Korean city of Kaesong, which employs 35,000 North Koreans, each earning $60 per month, would be halted. So would daily bus tours which have so far taken nearly 110,000 South Korean tourists to Kaesong, an ancient Korean capital.
Visits to a resort at the North’s scenic Mount Kumgang were indefinitely suspended following the apparently accidental shooting of a South Korean tourist there in July.
Since its inauguration in February, South Korea’s conservative administration, led by President Lee Myung-bak, has been less enthusiastic about inter-Korean cooperation than its two predecessors, promising economic aid only after Pyongyang gets rid of its nuclear arms programs.
Mr. Lee’s decision to sign onto a U.N. human rights resolution something Mr. Lee’s liberal predecessors did not do for fear of antagonizing Pyongyang provoked an angry response.
“It is really appalling that the puppet regime is taking a leading role in the racket of a so-called U.N. resolution on human rights in the North,” the KCNA said.
Mr. Lee has also not followed up agreements made at a summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and then South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun last year.
The North’s strongest ire has been reserved for the South’s refusal to halt a civic group’s dispatch of leaflets across the border.
Both Koreas agreed to end cross-border propaganda in 2004. However, while Seoul halted state-sponsored activities, a private group in the South, led by a North Korean defector familiar with the writing style favored in North Korea, has dispatched leaflets attached to helium balloons over the frontier, carrying information about Mr. Kim.
There are strong rumors that the North’s secretive leader has suffered a stroke, and Pyongyang’s sensitivity to leafleting adds credibility to rumors of Kim’s ill health, analysts say.
“Leaflets have been sent over the last 57 years,” said Dr. Kim Tae-woo of Seoul’s Korean Institute for Defense Analysis. “That they are now so sensitive, indicates problems with their leader’s health, and that indicates instability in their system.”
Although inter-Korean cooperation projects are one of the impoverished state’s few sources of hard currency and the North is desperately short of food, politics have a higher priority than economics.
“This is why North Korea has junk bond status: Doing business there is so high-risk that most countries avoid it,” said Michael Breen, author of Kim Jong-il:North Korea’s Dear Leader.’ “It is a perfect example of the North Korean position, which is to hold a gun to its own head and say, ‘If you don’t do what I say, I’m going to shoot myself!’ ”
North Korea has a habit of playing off donors against each other. Analysts here say that with a more liberal administration coming to power in Washington, the North is cutting back on its reliance on the South.
“North Korea is gradually upgrading pressure,” said Dr. Rhee Bong-jo, president of the Korea Institute of National Unification. “They have some hopes that they can achieve direct dialogue with the new U.S. government.”