- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 22, 2009

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA (AP) - North Korea accused South Korea of tampering with a border marker and threatened to retaliate Wednesday, a day after their first official talks in more than a year ended without progress.

The North claimed that the South Korean military had moved a marker on their heavily armed border dozens of yards (meters) to the north, calling the move a “serious military provocation” and a “vicious criminal act.”

It warned it would “take a measure for self-defense and the South Korean warmongers will be held entirely accountable for all the ensuing consequences” unless the marker is returned to its original place, the North’s official Korean Central News Agency said.

South Korea’s military rejected the accusations as “groundless” and urged the North to stop raising tensions.

The allegations came a day after the two Koreas held their first government-to-government talks since conservative South Korean President Lee Myung-bak took office in February last year with a pledge to get tough with North Korea and its nuclear ambitions.

The brief talks, which followed a full day of procedural haggling, ended without progress. The North rejected the South’s request for the release of a South Korean worker who has been held for weeks at a joint industrial complex in its border city of Kaesong. North Korea says the worker denounced its political system.

Tensions have been running high on the divided peninsula since North Korea’s April 5 rocket launch, which was criticized by the U.N. Security Council. In response, North Korea angrily quit nuclear disarmament talks, expelled international monitors and vowed to restart its nuclear facilities.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is to visit North Korea on Thursday and Friday, his ministry announced, and is expected to try to persuade it to reverse those decisions.

The North also has been ratcheting up tensions with the South, warning over the weekend that its neighbor should not forget that its capital is only 31 miles (50 kilometers) away from the border _ an apparent reminder that the sprawling city is within easy artillery range.

Gen. Walter Sharp, commander of the 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea, called North Korea a “very dangerous country” that has “the world’s largest artillery force that is positioned … very far south that can range Seoul today.”

But he said the U.S. and South Korean militaries are fully prepared for any possibilities, “whether it’s a full-out attack from North Korea, provocations or great instabilities within North Korea.” He spoke at a meeting of the Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Relations between the two Koreas have frayed badly as North Korea has denounced the South Korean government’s tougher stance. It cut off reconciliation talks and suspended key joint projects, leaving the industrial zone as the only major remaining project.

At Tuesday’s talks, the North told the South that the industrial park “is facing a crisis due to the South,” Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Ho-nyeon said. It also said it wants to raise wages and start charging for land used by more than 100 South Korean companies with factories in the zone, he said.

Kim said the North again warned South Korea not to join a U.S.-led program aimed at stopping the spread of weapons of mass destruction, a move North Korea has said would be considered a “declaration of war.”

North Korea has condemned the program, the Proliferation Security Initiative, as part of U.S. efforts to overthrow its communist government.

The two sides, however, left room for further meetings.

North Korea demanded that the two countries begin holding talks on reviewing the contracts at the Kaesong complex. The South said in a statement that “dialogue between South and North authorities will continue.” It did not give any timeframe.

South Korean Unification Minister Hyun In-taek, who is in charge of policy toward the North, told lawmakers Wednesday the government will carefully study the North’s demand before deciding whether to start talks on Kaesong.

The Kaesong complex, about an hour’s drive from Seoul, marries South Korean capital and management skills with cheap North Korean labor. The project has been beset by troubles since last year, with North Korea tightening border controls that have inconvenienced South Korean businesses operating there and sparked worries about its continued viability.

The joint project began in 2004 during a period of detente between the two sides and has symbolized efforts to overcome the enmity since the peninsula was divided at the end of World War II. The two Koreas fought the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended with a cease-fire rather than a peace treaty, leaving the two countries still technically at war.


Associated Press writers Kwang-tae Kim in Seoul and David Nowak in Moscow contributed to this report.

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