- The Washington Times - Friday, March 20, 2009

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA (AP) - North Korea pledged Friday to restore its military communications hot line with the South but closed the border dividing the two Koreas for the third time in recent days, South Korean officials said.

The North Korean military cut the communications line on March 9 to protest Seoul’s decision to hold 12 days of joint military exercises with U.S. troops across South Korea at a time of heightened tension on the peninsula.

Washington and Seoul call the war games routine defense drills; Pyongyang accused the two nations’ militaries of preparing to attack the North.

The drills ended Friday. The North said it would reconnect the hot line at 8 a.m. Saturday, Unification Ministry spokeswoman Lee Jong-joo said.

“We will again restore the North-South military communications,” said a message faxed to South Korean border officials, according to Lee.

The hot line is the only means of quick communication left between the two Koreas and is vital for coordinating the passage of people and goods across their border _ one of the most heavily fortified in the world. The two countries technically remain at war because their three-year conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, in 1953.

After a decade of warming ties, relations have deteriorated since President Lee Myung-bak ended the flow of unconditional aid to Pyongyang a year ago. North Korea has cut several hot lines since he took office, and in December banned nearly all traffic through its border crossing.

Since the war games began March 9, North Korean officials have refused three times to let South Korean workers commute to and from jobs at a lucrative industrial park in the border town of Kaesong, leaving hundreds stranded in North Korea.

The repeated closures have called into question the future of the factory, a joint economic venture once hailed as a promising example of inter-Korean cooperation and a key source of hard currency for the impoverished North.

Vice Unification Minister Hong Yang-ho said shutting down the complex was not an option. But he said the border closures are causing “serious economic damage” and warned the North it would be held responsible for losses.

The North gave no reason for Friday’s closure, the Unification Ministry spokeswoman said.

But the move has worsened already tense relations on the Korean peninsula since the North announced plans to fire a satellite in early April _ a move several regional powers have said is merely cover for a test of missile technology. On Friday, North Korea said it would convene its rubber-stamp parliament on April 9, just after the planned launch.

Amid the tensions, two American journalists were reportedly being detained by North Korean authorities for ignoring warnings to stop shooting footage of the reclusive country. Laura Ling and Euna Lee, reporters for former Vice President Al Gore’s online media outlet Current TV, were seized Tuesday along the Chinese-North Korean border, according to news reports and an activist who worked with them.

The journalists were seeking to interview North Koreans who had escaped and were hiding in China, according to the Rev. Chun Ki-won of the Seoul-based Durihana Mission, a Christian group that aids defectors.

___

Associated Press writer Kwang-tae Kim contributed to this report.

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