N. Korea Threatens 'Total Freeze' of Relations With South

16 October 2008

North Korea says it is considering what it calls a "total freeze" on ties with South Korea. It is the latest sign of Pyongyang's displeasure with the South's conservative president. VOA Seoul Correspondent Kurt Achin reports.

South Korean officials are downplaying harsh North Korean commentary in Pyongyang's official Rodong Sinmun newspaper.

Lee Myung-bak (file photo)
Lee Myung-bak (file photo)
The commentary refers to the administration of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak as "the group of traitors," and accuses it of "reckless confrontation" with the North. It goes on to warn of a "crucial decision, including the total freeze of the North-South relations."

President Lee has been a target of North Korean criticism for months. He has taken a much firmer policy approach to North Korea than his two predecessors - withholding South Korean aid and cash until there is more progress on issues like getting rid of the North's nuclear weapons. 

In recent weeks, South Korea has angered the North by refusing to prevent human rights groups from launching leaflets critical of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il into North Korean territory using balloons.

Operations at a joint North-South tourism zone have been on hold since North Korea's military shot a South Korean civilian in July. A total freeze would likely also suspend a joint industrial zone in the North Korean city of Kaesong, which employs more than 30,000 North Koreans.

Economist Marcus Noland specializes in North Korea for the Peterson Institute of International Economics. He says it should be obvious that North Korea has much more to lose by severing inter-Korean ties than the South does. But he says in Pyongyang, things might not be so clear.

"The problem with North Korea is the government simply does not care about the general welfare of the population," said Noland.

Noland says North Korea's government makes its decisions based on a "narrow set of ruthless political concerns" such as keeping party elites and the military loyal.

"And so from the standpoint of the North Korean government, yes - breaking off ties with South Korea could have all sorts of adverse economic effects," he said. "But that would largely not be felt by the people making that decision."

There are no immediately apparent implications in Thursday's threat for efforts to get rid of North Korea's nuclear weapons. The North resumed the disabling of its main nuclear plant a few days ago, following a compromise deal with the United States over nuclear inspections.