South Korea political row opens over approach to North talks

SEOUL Fri Jun 3, 2011 6:53am EDT

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak attends a joint news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (unseen) in Tokyo May 22, 2011. REUTERS/Tomohiro Ohsumi/Pool

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak attends a joint news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (unseen) in Tokyo May 22, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Tomohiro Ohsumi/Pool

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea's main opposition party hit out against the government's "hard-line" North Korea policy on Friday after Pyongyang's embarrassing revelations about a failed secret meeting that have derailed a push for inter-Korean dialogue.

The North blindsided Washington and Seoul this week with a rash of anti-South vitriol, signaling its leader Kim Jong-il probably wants to sit out the term of President Lee Myung-bak due to end in 2013.

Local media said the North wanted to create an internal political divide in the South, and that it was prepared now to wait for the election of a new president to discuss ways to resolve inter-Korean issues.

The leading candidates from two main parties take a more dovish stance on the reclusive North than Lee, who infuriated Pyongyang upon taking office in 2008 by cutting aid and saying it would not only resume help when the North denuclearized.

"If the government truly wants dialogue with North Korea, it should first discard the hard-line policy toward the North and begin unconditional dialogue to provide humanitarian assistance, including rice, and improve inter-Korean relations," Kim Jin-pyo, the Democratic Party's floor leader, told parliament in Seoul.

North Korea's military repeated its threat to attack the South on Friday, vowing "thousand-fold revenge" on the Seoul government after local media in the South reported that some South Korean army training centers had used pictures of Kim Jong-il and his son as targets on rifle ranges.

"From now on the units of the three services of the KPA and the Worker-Peasant Red Guards will launch practical and overall retaliatory military actions to wipe out the group of traitors at a stroke," said North's official mouthpiece KCNA, carrying a statement from the spokesman for the Korean People's Army General Staff.

North Korea has often made bellicose threats against the South.

The North said at the start of the week it had ended all attempts in dealing with "traitor" Lee and his "thuggish clan," and broke off two of their few channels of inter-Korean dialogue.

Two days later the North made the stunning revelation that South Korean officials last month had "begged" and tried to bribe the North into attending a series of summits.

"The Democratic Party supports all forms of dialogue efforts, including summit talks, if they are for the sake of improving inter-Korean relations, but such efforts should be made in a dignified way," Kim said.

Seoul has acknowledged the secret talks took place in Beijing, but said they were aimed at extracting an assurance from the North not to repeat the kind of attacks staged last year that killed 50 South Koreans.

The attacks, one of which the North denies and the other it says was an act of self-defense, drove tensions on the peninsula to their highest level in years.

Washington has conceded the North's pronouncements are not "getting us any closer to improving North-South relations."

Unification Minister Hyun In-taek said that the North wanted to provoke internal political conflict in the South.

The JoonAng Daily said in an editorial that the North hoped the internal divide would lead to a "fissure in the traditional ties between Seoul and Washington."

Analysts say the allies are closely aligned in their no-nonsense approach to drawing the North back into aid-for-denuclearization talks, but differences have emerged over providing food aid to the impoverished country.

The South has questioned the North's pleas for aid, but the Obama administration is coming under pressure to provide help against Seoul's wishes.

Analysts say the North's top diplomatic priority is talks with Washington with whom it wants to sign a peace treaty.

(Additional reporting by Ju-min Park in Seoul and Paul Eckert in Washington; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)