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N.K.’s action aimed at damaging Lee

North Korea’s disclosure of what it claims was an “under-the-table proposal” from the South for summits seems to seek a stir here that observers say will not only worsen inter-Korean ties but trigger political conflicts.

Pyongyang’s National Defense Commission said Wednesday some of President Lee Myung-bak’s aides had made secretive contact with the North earlier this year to propose three summit meetings. It also said that the Seoul officials “begged” for any gesture to appease South Koreans still angry over last year’s attacks.

The claims go directly against the Lee administration’s outwardly hard-line stance ―- well received by the right wing here ― not to resume dialogue with the North unless it makes a proper apology for its deadly attacks on the South last year.

The South blames the North for apparently torpedoing its warship Cheonan and bombarding western border island Yeonpyeong in March and November, respectively. The two offensives killed 50 people including two civilians.

Pyongyang either denies its responsibility or accuses Seoul of making the first move, an attitude that has resulted in months-long frozen ties and suspended dialogue.

Experts say that North Korea may have sought to create conflicts in the South over its tough policy toward Pyongyang.

“The announcement seems to be designed to induce criticism of the current government’s policy on North Korea,” Nam Sung-wook, director of the Institute for National Security Strategy, told a local daily.

The Seoul government accused Pyongyang of distorting South Korea’s “real intentions,” but did not deny such an offer was made, sparking criticism from opposition parties, who called the incident “humiliating.”

“Such an ambivalent attitude will not win the Lee government popularity among its own people or help mend ties with North Korea,” the main opposition Democratic Party said in a statement.

“We, however, hope to see an inter-Korean summit being held at an early date with both sides taking a step back for a bigger cause,” it added.

Seoul’s pointman on North Korea affairs admitted that contact had been made via an unofficial communication channel.

“But the main purpose of the contact had been to secure a clear apology from North Korea, not to propose a summit,” Unification Minister Hyun In-taek said during a parliamentary questioning session Thursday.

“Our position remains the same,” he added. “There cannot be any dialogue until an apology is made.”

North Korea, meanwhile, kept up its offensive against Seoul on Thursday, making clear that a change had been made to its previous reconciliatory stance.

“We have been tolerant for a long time for the sake of better inter-Korean ties. The situation we face today is fully due to the Lee Myung-bak administration’s unwillingness to talk,” it claimed on one of its Internet Web sites operated for propaganda purposes.

Shortly after its leader Kim Jong-il held a summit with Chinese President Hu Jintao in Beijing last week, the reclusive Pyongyang regime stepped up hostile rhetoric against Seoul.

On Monday, the defense commission of Pyongyang said it would suspend the eastern border communication channel and warned of “physical actions” over Seoul’s propaganda campaign near their heavily fortified border.

With North Korea apparently discarding the option of holding dialogue with South Korea as a way of rejoining larger-scale talks with regional powers, the Seoul government will face a dilemma in its diplomatic position, analysts say.

“We will watch how things develop,” a Unification Ministry official said on the condition of anonymity. “Truthfully, there is not much we can do now that North Korea has made clear it does not want to have anything to do with us.”

South Korea and other members of the six-nation talks aimed at denuclearizing Pyongyang have been positively discussing the option of holding inter-Korean dialogue as the first step in full resumption of the stalled negotiations.

Snubbing Seoul, North Korea may aim at holding one-on-one talks with Washington, a move that could threaten South Korea’s initiative in solving regional issues.

While criticizing North Korea for disclosing the secret meeting, the U.S. said the incident will not affect its decision over whether to resume food aid to the impoverished nation.

“North Korea needs to improve North-South relations and demonstrate a change in behavior before we can move forward, and this includes ceasing provocative actions,” State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner told a press briefing in Washington.

“Our food assistance program is a separate piece altogether from the policy side of that,” the spokesman added, making clear that Washington’s ongoing consideration over food aid for Pyongyang would not be affected.

By Shin Hae-in (hayney@heraldcorp.com)
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