Sat, Nov 15, 2008 - Page 5 News List

South Korea to resume aid despite tensions

GO HOMENorth Korean military officials told South Korean business managers to move their factories out of the North, a strong sign the regime’s threats were serious

AGENCIES , SEOUL

South Korea’s government said yesterday it would resume funding for private aid projects in North Korea despite Pyongyang’s threat to shut the border amid rising tensions.

“We are going ahead with humanitarian aid regardless of the current situation,” said Kim Ho-nyoun, spokesman for the unification ministry, which handles cross-border relations.

Kim said however that the communist North has not responded to the South’s appeal for dialogue to ease tensions.

The ministry suspended the funding for private South Korean groups after North Korean soldiers in July shot dead a female tourist from Seoul at the North’s Mount Kumgang resort.

The ministry said it would grant about 1 billion won (US$730,000) out of a total of 4 billion won requested by civic groups after consultations with other government agencies.

After months of frosty relations, North Korea on Wednesday announced it would shut the border from Dec. 1 in protest at what it called Seoul’s policy of confrontation.

A total border closure would cripple the Seoul-funded Kaesong industrial complex, a joint project built in the North as a symbol of reconciliation.

Northern officials also closed the Red Cross office in the border village of Panmunjom and cut the organization’s phone lines there.

The North has said it was protesting at Seoul’s failure to honor inter-Korean summit agreements in 2000 and last year.

But it was also furious at the spreading of propaganda leaflets across the border by Seoul activists, and has previously threatened to expel South Koreans from Kaesong in protest.

Seoul said it has asked activists to stop launching balloons laden with leaflets but could not legally bar them.

In its message on Thursday, the South told the North it was trying to stop the leaflets and that it wanted to promote joint business projects.

Relations soured after conservative South Korean President Lee Myung-bak took office in February. He promised to take a firmer line with the North after a decade-long “sunshine” engagement policy under his liberal predecessors.

Analyst Kim Byung-ki said the North was testing the strength of the US-South Korea alliance before the Obama administration takes office.

“It is testing the strength of cooperation between South Korea and the United States,” said Kim, a Korea University academic. “North Korea may try to improve relations with the next [US] government. However, I don’t think the administration will sideline South Korea to do so.”

Koh Yu-hwan, a Dongkuk University professor, told reporters that uncertainty over leader Kim Jong-il’s health could prolong tense relations.

Kim was widely reported to have suffered a stroke around mid-August.

Should the leader die, Koh said, the military would turn defensive “and inter-Korean relations will remain tense until a new leadership emerges.”

Meanwhile, North Korean military officials told South Korean business managers to move their factories out of the North, a report said yesterday — a strong sign the regime was serious about shutting down the border in a further deterioration of inter-Korean ties.

The high-level military delegation made the comments during a rare inspection of a joint industrial park in Kaesong last week, South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported.

The newspaper quoted a South Korean businessman with a factory in Kaesong who met with government officials on Thursday, a day after the North said it would shut its side of the border on Dec. 1.

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