January 20, 2009 / 3:35 AM / 11 years ago

North Korea steps up warnings against South

SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea, which analysts suspect is trying hard to grab the attention of incoming U.S. president Barack Obama, Tuesday accused the South of driving the divided peninsula back into war.

Hwang Joon-kook, South Korea's No. 2 nuclear envoy to the North Korea disarmament talks, arrives from North Korea via Beijing at Incheon International Airport in Incheon, west of Seoul, South Korea, January 20, 2009. REUTERS/Lee Jin-man/Pool

It is the latest verbal onslaught against South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, who Monday put the architect of the policy that has so angered the North in charge of relations between the two Koreas.

“It goes without saying that Lee Myung-bak is the one who has driven the bellicosity high,” the official Rodong Sinmun newspaper said in an editorial carried on North Korea’s KCNA news agency.

South Korea at the weekend placed its military — backed by some 28,000 U.S. troops in the South — on high alert and warned of possible conflicts off the west coast of the peninsula which has been the scene of deadly naval disputes in the past, after Pyongyang said it would wipe out its neighbor.

“Only those who made up their minds to start a war can say this nonsense ... This is hysterical madness and the situation is grave,” the newspaper added.

Analysts say the secretive North, which often uses key events when it wants to make a point to the outside world, is using its latest surge in furious rhetoric to try to attract the attention of Obama, who will be inaugurated later in the day.

Investors shrugged off North Korea’s repeated threats as South Korea’s five-year CDS, a measure of risk premium on investing in the South, stood at 310 basis points, up slightly from Monday but still far below levels seen last week.

Pyongyang’s rocky relationship with the Bush administration has been calmer in the past year or so, after it agreed to start moves to dismantle its nuclear weapons program. However, multilateral negotiations have been stalled for months over the North’s refusal to allow nuclear material to be taken outside the country.

Many North Korea-watchers say Pyongyang’s ultimate goal, using the threat of nuclear weapons as its leverage, is to have diplomatic relations with Washington and it may be hoping for an easier relationship with the Obama government.

The relationship between the two Koreas — still technically at war — has chilled sharply since Lee took office almost a year ago with a promise to end the free-flow of aid to his communist neighbor unless it moved to end its nuclear weapons program.

NEW MINISTER

Monday, he named as his new unification minister conservative scholar Hyun In-taek, a major figure in developing Lee’s policy of heavy investment into the North in exchange for nuclear disarmament and economic reform.

Pyongyang’s leaders have bridled at the policy which many analysts say would ultimately undermine the authority of Kim Jong-il, who has maintained absolute control while his country’s economy has sunk into ruin.

Since late last year, the North has blocked almost all traffic between the two sides but late last week did allow in a South Korean team of officials to discuss the possible purchase of fuel rods from its nuclear reactor.

Slideshow (3 Images)

“There are 14,000 fuel rods that are available to buy in North Korea, and the value of the uranium extracted from them would be about $11 million,” said Moon Hong-sik, Research Fellow, Institute for National Security Strategy (INSS).

“The significance of bringing the fuel rods out of North Korea itself shows North Korea’s will to follow the steps (of denuclearization).”

The officials who visited the North’s Yongbyon nuclear facility returned to Seoul Tuesday and said steps to disable the aging nuclear complex were moving ahead but there was no change to the North’s position that it would not allow sampling as part of verifying its disclosure of nuclear activities.

Additional reporting by Angela Moon, Rhee So-eui and Jack Kim; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani

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