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North Korea: Brinkmanship Yet Again?

Posted by: Ihlwan Moon on November 13, 2008

You wouldn’t think an impoverished country facing a chronic food shortage will close its borders to the most important donor nation that has helped meet the shortfall for years. But that’s exactly what North Korea is threatening to do to South Korea. One big reason: South Korea failed to stop activists from launching balloons that flew over the border, dropping leaflets detailing speculations on North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s health setbacks and denouncing his dictatorship.

On Nov. 12, the North Korean military notified the South it would “strictly restrict and cut off” traffic across the demilitarized zone bisecting the Korean peninsula from next month. The move comes as North Korea watchers and U.N. officials warn that millions of North Koreans are malnourished because of a food shortage caused by floods last year and the suspension of rice supply from the South this year.

Pyongyang has shown anger at conservative South Korean President Lee Myung Bak, who took office in February with a pledge to link the South’s aid to progress in efforts to end North Korea’s nuclear program. In recent years, South Korea has supplied an average of 400.000 tons of rice and 300,000 tons of fertilizers annually to the North to help it meet its food demand, but Lee’s administration hasn’t shipped them this year.

South Korean officials say it is not clear whether the North means to close the border completely. At risk is the Kaesong industrial park, which is operated by the South just north of the border. There, some 35,000 North Koreans work at more than 80 South Korean factories. “North Korea seems to be putting pressure on South Korea to take a softer approach,” says Yun Duk Min, North Korea expert at the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security in Seoul.

In another sign that North Korea may be trying to squeeze concessions from the international community, Pyongyang on Nov. 12 said international inspectors would not be allowed to take samples from its nuclear complex at Yongbyon. South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung Hwan said the move was a rejection of a promise North Korea made last month to allow verification of the disablement of its plutonium-making nuclear plants.

The U.S. removed North Korea from a terrorism blacklist last month when Pyongyang agreed to resume disabling its Yongbyon nuclear facilities and allow in inspectors to verify claims it made about its nuclear program. But on Wednesday, North Korea called the issue of taking samples from the Yongbyon complex an infringement on its sovereignty, saying it was not part of a disarmament-for-aid deal struck with the U.S. Officials and analysts in South Korea say North Korea’s negotiation strategy has always been to create a crisis in an attempt to secure greater concessions.

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