- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 10, 2009


North Korea agreed Tuesday to allow South Koreans working in a joint industrial zone in North Korea to cross the border after Pyongyang’s move to cut the last military hot line to Seoul left hundreds stranded overnight, officials said.

North Korea put its troops on alert and cut the hot line Monday as the American and South Korean militaries began joint maneuvers. The communist regime warned that even the slightest provocation could trigger war during the 12-day drills.

The North stressed that provocation would include any attempt to interfere with its impending launch of a satellite into orbit. U.S. and Japanese officials suspect the launch is a cover for a test of a long-range attack missile and have suggested that they might move to intercept the rocket.

“Shooting our satellite for peaceful purposes will precisely mean a war,” North Korea’s military said in a statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency. Any interception attempt will draw “a just, retaliatory strike,” it said.

The North has been on a steady retreat from reconciliation since President Lee Myung-bak took office in the South a year ago. After Mr. Lee said the North must continue dismantling its nuclear program if it wants aid, Pyongyang cut ties, suspended joint projects and stepped up its belligerent rhetoric.

Allied commanders say the exercises are nothing more than the annual drills the two nations have held for years, while the North has been condemning them as a rehearsal for invasion.

Analysts say the launch could occur late this month or in early April, about the time North Korea’s new parliament, elected Sunday, convenes its first session with leader Kim Jong-il at its helm.

Mr. Kim, 67, was among legislators unanimously elected to a five-year term, the North’s state media said. Elections in North Korea are largely a formality, with the ruling Workers’ Party hand-picking one candidate for each district and voters endorsing the sole nominee.

Observers were watching the results for signs of a shift in policy - or hints that Mr. Kim, who reportedly suffered a stroke in August, might be grooming a son to succeed him. None of his three sons appeared on a list of lawmakers on state TV late Monday.

In Seoul, President Obama’s special envoy on North Korea, Stephen Bosworth, urged Pyongyang not to fire a missile, which he said would be an “extremely ill-advised” move.

“Whether they describe it as a satellite launch or something else makes no difference,” Mr. Bosworth said after talks with his South Korean counterpart on drawing Pyongyang back to international talks on the North’s nuclear disarmament.

South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman Won Tae-jae played down the North’s threats as “rhetoric,” but added that the country’s military was ready to deal with any contingencies.

Last week, the North threatened danger to South Korean passenger planes flying near its airspace if the maneuvers proceeded, and several airlines rerouted their flights as a precaution.

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