Tensions to rise further on Korean peninsula

 

Tensions are likely to rise on the Korean peninsula as North Korea continues to stonewall a six-nation deal to disable its nuclear weapons programme, analysts said Saturday.


Smarting at Seoul's tougher policy and continuing US sanctions against the communist state, Pyongyang took a raft of actions in the past week that analysts said could culminate in a clash in the Yellow Sea.

"We'll probably see a new naval clash off the western coast," Professor Yoo Ho-Yeol of the department of North Korean Studies at Korea University told AFP.

"Unless both sides show restraint, there would be no guarantee that such a clash would remain offshore and would not spread to the ground," he said.

The North's Navy Command issued a fresh warning on Friday against the South's warships intruding into its "territorial waters" in the Yellow Sea, which are claimed by both Koreas.

Bloody clashes involving warships of the two rivals in 1999 and 2002 left tens of casualties on both sides.

The North's Navy took issue with a statement made on Wednesday to parliament by South Korea's new joint chief of staff, Kim Tae-Young, who said that the South would defend the disputed sea border at any cost.

The North's Navy warning came hours after Pyongyang test-fired short-range missiles in the Yellow Sea on Friday for the first time in nine months and after it expelled South Korean officials from Kaesong industrial park, the most important inter-Korean project and the most visible symbol of reconciliation.

The expulsion was in retaliation against remarks by South Korean Unification Minister Kim Ha-Joong last week that it would be difficult to expand the Seoul-funded complex unless the six-nation nuclear deal moves forward.

The moves showed that the North believed Seoul's "sunshine" policy of engagement with Pyongyang -- exercised during ten years of liberal rule in the South which ended with the recent election of conservative President Lee Myung-Bak -- was over, analysts said.

"Pyongyang is now applying an all-court pressing tactic. After watching for a while, it reached a conclusion that it cannot get along with the new South Korean government," said former Unification Minister Jeong Se-yun, now an analyst and head of the nonprofit Korean Council for Reconciliation and Cooperation.

Pyongyang further fuelled the tensions on Friday, when a North Korean foreign ministry spokesman said US delays in resolving a dispute over the extent of its nuclear weapons programme could delay work to disable the North's plutonium-producing atomic plants under the landmark six-nation deal.

The spokesman, quoted by the North's Korean Central News Agency, said the US was hindering progress in the six-nation talks by raising "unjust demands" and pressing Pyongyang to declare an uranium enrichment programme that the North denies exists.

Jeong, the analyst, said Pyongyang was raising the stakes in order to prevent South Korea and the United States from opting for a tougher stance toward the North when Lee meets President George W. Bush at an April 18-19 summit in Washington.

The nuclear issue is expected to be high on their agenda, but Professor Koh Yu-Hwan of Dongguk University said no breakthrough was likely to emerge in the foreseeable future.

"The North says it cannot declare what it says does not exist in the first place," Koh said.

"Either the US intelligence on this issue might have been wrong or the North might have reached a final decision to deny its existence," he said. "I don't see any way out of this stalemate."

North Korea last year agreed to disable its main atomic plants at Yongbyon and declare all its nuclear programmes and materials by the end of 2007 under the six-nation deal.

The US-supervised disablement has been going ahead and the North says it submitted the declaration last November. But the US says it has not fully accounted for the suspected uranium enrichment programme and for allegations of nuclear proliferation to Syria. (AFP)

 

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