PYONGYANG (Reuters) - North Korea accused Seoul on Friday of intentionally dragging ties on the unstable peninsula to a new low, with a former South Korean leader saying relations may now stand on the brink of reconciliation or catastrophe.
Analysts said the North, closing its few border crossings and refusing to let international inspectors remove samples from a plutonium-producing plant, was retreating deeper into its shell amid growing speculation over the health of leader Kim Jong-il.
They say that the North is seeking instead to turn the focus onto the South and its conservative President Lee Myung-bak, who cut off what once had been a free flow of unconditional aid when he took office in February and tied future handouts to the North’s denuclearization.
North Korean mouthpieces have turned up the heat this week on Lee, who they label a traitor.
“Lee Myung-bak’s group doesn’t want either dialogue or unification. What they want is to intentionally worsen the North-South relationship,” the North’s Minju Joson newspaper said in a commentary.
Pyongyang also is furious at Lee’s government for letting civic groups send anti-Kim leaflets across the border.
Former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000 for a summit that brought his country closer to its Cold War rival, said the North was “confused and shocked” by the changes in Seoul.
“South-North relations now stand at a crossroads -- heading toward catastrophe or reconciliation,” the former left-leaning president told the Hankook Ilbo daily.
The reclusive North this week vowed to close the handful of cross-border links with the South from December 1 and is also threatening to limit travel across the border with China, its main benefactor.
Travel agents in China said Pyongyang was restricting tourists from their side of the border, which is the main route for trade and investment for impoverished North Korea.
Analysts suggest such moves are all outward expressions of inner turmoil.
“North Korea wants to tighten its internal control because of leader Kim Jong-il’s health,” Ko Yu-hwan, a Dongguk University professor of North Korea studies, told reporters in Seoul.
NO CLEAR SUCCESSOR
U.S., Japanese and South Korean officials say Kim, 66, likely suffered a stroke in August, which has raised questions about his grip on power and who is making decisions about the North’s nuclear weapons programme.
There is no clear succession plan and analysts said the secretive state’s top cadres could now be dealing with the question of who will lead the North’s 23 million people if Kim is no longer fit to rule the world’s first communist dynasty.
It took Kim about two years to secure power after his father and state founder Kim Il-sung died in 1994, with the son pouring the North’s meager resources into the powerful military to win support, in turn further weakening the economy and pushing the population in and out of famine.
The North also said on Wednesday it would not let international inspectors remove nuclear samples from its plant that produces weapons-grade plutonium. Seoul says that is tantamount to reneging on a deal with five regional powers to dismantle its nuclear weapons programme in return for aid.
Japan’s foreign minister said the North was required to do so under the disarmament-for-aid deal, Kyodo News reported.
South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan said on Thursday the North may be trying to strong-arm the international community into giving it more aid in exchange for Pyongyang taking its foot off the brakes on the disarmament deal.
Additional reporting by Kim Junghyun and Rhee So-eui, writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Jonathan Thatcher and Paul Tait
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