SEOUL (Reuters) – Secretive North Korea said on Monday it would all but seal its border with the South a week before heading into talks with its neighbor and other regional powers which are pressing it to give up nuclear weapons.
The tension on the long-divided Korean peninsula has been escalating since conservative President Lee Myung-bak took office in February promising to invest heavily in the impoverished North on condition it moves to end development of an atomic arsenal.
North Korea's KCNA news agency said the border closure was the first step "to be taken in connection with the evermore undisguised anti-DPRK (North Korea) confrontational racket of the south Korean puppet authorities."
But the latest move appeared to be more saber-rattling than substance as the North will continue to let in some South Koreans to manage an industrial zone just across the border in what is the one significant economic relationship it has with the South.
"(The North) never said it would halt production or expel staff related to the production process. So even in the worst case of operating with only half of the staff, we think there won't be any problem in production," said Lee Eun-suk, an official at Shinwon Corp which has clothing factories at Kaesong.
The increasingly angry rhetoric follows an end to South Korean largesse to the North since Lee came to power.
At the weekend, Lee made clear he would not back down in the face of threats by the North which accuses him of trying to reignite war between the Koreas and warned last month it was ready to reduce its wealthy neighbor to rubble.
The latest saber-rattling come as U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced the next round of international talks on North Korea's nuclear program would be on December 8 in China.
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Years of on-off negotiations between the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russian and the United States are currently stumbling over demands the North allow verification of steps it has taken to disarm.
Pyongyang is refusing to allow samples to be taken out of the country for testing.
"The North Koreans took 30 years to get a nuclear weapons program. I think it might take more than a couple to unravel it," Rice told reporters aboard Air Force One when asked if she was disappointed at the pace of the talks.
In a deal worked out in 2005, North Korea agreed to stop trying to develop nuclear weapons in exchange for massive aid and a chance to end its international isolation.
But the negotiations have hit repeated stalemates and analysts say that the nearer the international community get to demanding complete nuclear disarmament the more difficult the negotiations will become.
The North tested a nuclear device two years ago but it has never been clear how successful it was or whether it has the capacity to launch a nuclear attack.
Some analysts says North Korean leader Kim Jong-il will never give up the only real leverage his destitute country has to win concessions from the outside world and which do not threaten his tight grip on power.
But there has been speculation in recent months Kim, who rules by personality cult, may have suffered serious illness, though officials in the region say he appears to still be in control. North Korea denies the 66-year-old leader is ailing.
North Korea warned nearly two weeks ago it would end traffic across the heavily armed border with its wealthy neighbor from December 1, but this is the first time it has given details of what it would do.
It will also suspend all tours to its border city of Kaesong, near the Kaesong industrial park run by South Korea, and halt rail traffic across the border. While about 200 tourists a day visit Kaesong city, the rail link reopened after 50 years last year has been largely a symbolic gesture and carries almost no cargo.
South Korean Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Ho-nyeon told reporters that the North had told firms operating in the industrial park that it would allow some personnel to remain so that the plants can keep operating.
There are close to 90 South Korean companies working there, employing over 30,000 North Koreans on salaries far below their equivalent across the border.
Analysts say most of their wages ends up in the hands of the North Korean government in Pyongyang.
(Additional reporting by Jack Kim and Kim Jung-hyun in Seoul, David Alexander aboard Air Force One)
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