February 1, 2009 / 8:17 AM / 10 years ago

North Korea says two Koreas on path toward war

SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea warned on Sunday that the downward spiral of relations with the South has pushed the peninsula to the brink of war, two days after it said it was scrapping all pacts with its rich capitalist neighbor.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il (C) visits the 131 military unit at an undisclosed place in North Korea, in this undated picture released by North Korea's official news agency KCNA, February 1, 2009. REUTERS/KCNA

Analysts say the rhetorical volleys are aimed at changing the hardline policies of the South’s president and are meant to grab the attention of new U.S. President Barack Obama.

“The policy of confrontation with the DPRK (North Korea) pursued by the (South Korean) group is ... the very source of military conflicts and war between the North and the South,” the North’s official KCNA news agency reported a commentary in the communist party newspaper as saying.

“In Korea in the state of armistice confrontation means escalated tension and it may lead to an uncontrollable and unavoidable military conflict and a war,” it said.

The states, technically still at war because their 1950-53 conflict ended with a cease fire and not a peace treaty, have more than 1 million troops near their border. There are about 28,000 U.S. troops in South Korea to defend the country.

The North’s bureaucracy works slowly to form policy and it may still be trying to figure out its approach with the new Obama team, analysts said, making it easier for Pyongyang to direct its anger at Washington’s allies, including Seoul.

The North in recent months has repeatedly threatened to destroy the conservative government of President Lee Myung-bak, which ended a decade of free-flowing aid to Pyongyang after taking office a year ago.

Lee’s government mostly ignores Pyongyang’s taunts.

“North Korea’s escalating threats do not indicate major hostilities are imminent,” said Bruce Klingner, an expert on Korean affairs at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

“However, they could easily presage another round of tactical naval confrontations with South Korea in the Yellow Sea.”

The two Koreas fought deadly naval skirmishes in disputed Yellow Sea waters off the west coast in 1999 and 2002.

North Korea has clamped down on it border with the South in recent months and has canceled cooperation deals reached during a period of detente in the past few years before Lee came to power.

The deals included reunions for separated families and running trains across the heavily guarded border.

The latest move follows comments by a U.S. national security official that the secretive state’s leader, Kim Jong-il, appeared to have rebounded politically from his recent health scare and is making major decisions.

Kim inspected a military unit and a power plant at the weekend, KCNA said, with Kim noting “the (North) Korean people are ready to flatten even a mountain and empty even a sea at one go when called for by the Party.”

Additional reporting by Cheon Jong-woo in Seoul and Arshad Mohammed in Washington; Editing by Paul Tait

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