South Korean President Lee Myung-bak yesterday named as his unification minister an architect of his hardline policy on North Korea two days after renewed threats by Pyongyang.
Hyun In-taek, who takes over at the Unification Ministry, is a conservative scholar who helped Lee draw up the policy that demands Pyongyang drop its nuclear arms ambitions in return for South Korea’s economic help.
Pyongyang has called Lee “a traitor to the nation” for his North Korea policy and for ending what had been a free flow of aid under his two liberal predecessors.
North Korea said yesterday it did not engage in “empty talk” and had “guns and bayonets” aimed at its southern neighbor, heightening tensions.
North Korea’s military accused Lee on Saturday of plotting an invasion of the North and warned of strong military steps in retaliation and “an all-out confrontational posture.”
South Korea denied it was planning to invade and put its military on alert.
South Korea said yesterday it had detected no unusual moves by the North’s military.
Analysts said Hyun’s appointment suggested Lee would stick to his hardline policy on the North.
Tensions between the two Koreas, which technically remain at war because their 1950 to 1953 conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, have been escalating since Lee took office nearly a year ago pledging to get tough with the nuclear-armed neighbor.
The North since has cut off all ties and suspended several joint projects.
The North’s main Rodong Sinmun newspaper renewed the country’s warnings yesterday, saying it would “destroy and wipe out” invaders in “one strike” if South Korean “war maniacs ignite the fire of war.”
“The Lee Myung-bak group should bear in mind that our guns and bayonets ... are aimed at their throats,” the paper said in a commentary, carried by the official Korean Central News Agency. “We know no empty talk.”
Such threats are not uncommon and are typically issued through state-run media.
Saturday’s threats, however, were read by a uniformed army officer flanked by military flags — the first time since 1998 an officer has served as messenger rather than state media, South Korean officials said.
Despite the threats, Seoul’s deputy nuclear negotiator was on a five-day visit to North Korea — the highest-level visit to the North in a year.
South Korean nuclear envoy Hwang Joon-kook and his team were expected to leave Pyongyang later yesterday, officials said.
The visit is seen as an indication that Pyongyang has not abandoned a 2007 disarmament-for-aid pact signed by six regional powers.
South Korea, the US, Japan, Russia and China promised North Korea — which tested a nuclear bomb in 2006 — aid in exchange for dismantling its atomic program, but the disarmament process has been deadlocked for months over how to verify the North’s past nuclear activities.
Analysts say the North’s saber rattling is also a negotiating tactic aimed at Seoul and Washington ahead of US president-elect Barack Obama’s inauguration today.
MESSAGE TO OBAMA
“North Korea wants to draw Obama’s attention,” said Kim Yong-hyun, a professor at Seoul’s Dongguk University.
He said Pyongyang wanted to use the tensions with Seoul to make a case for its long-standing demand for diplomatic ties with Washington — the regime’s top foreign policy goal.