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North-South Korea Tensions Continue as Seoul Backs Conservatives

  • Kurt Achin

More signs of tension emerged between North and South Korea this week, as voters in the South handed a legislative majority to political conservatives. For the second time in weeks, Pyongyang ejected a South Korean official from a joint economic cooperation zone. As VOA's Kurt Achin reports from Seoul, rhetorical and military tensions from the North also remain high.

North Korea expelled a working-level South Korean official this week from the joint tourism zone at the North's Kumgang mountain resort. The official was overseeing part of the construction of a reunion center for families separated by the 1950s Korean war.

The expulsion came two weeks after the North sent home officials from a joint industrial park near the North Korean city of Kaesong. Both the Kumgang and Kaesong projects are funded by the South Korean government as part of a long-standing effort to peacefully engage the communist North.

Experts say the expulsions are part of a broader pattern of North Korean actions showing displeasure with the South's shift toward support for conservative leaders who support firmer policies toward Pyongyang.

However Ahn Tae Kwon, a South Korean administrator of the Kaesong industrial zone, says North Korea is not seriously jeopardizing its economic cooperation with the South.

He says the Kaesong zone continues to operate normally, and the expulsions have had no real impact. Nor, he says, do the North and South Koreans who work there engage in any political discussion whatsoever.

Here in South Korea, the politics are clearly shifting away from the liberal leadership of the past 10 years, which transferred billions of dollars in aid and investment to the North with little or no monitoring or public criticism.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, inaugurated in February, says he wants to make the inter-Korean relationship more "sincere," and says everything from humanitarian aid to investment depends on Pyongyang's response. Mr. Lee says he expects the North to fulfill promises related to ending its nuclear weapons programs, and improving its dismal record on human rights.

North Korea has responded by threatening to turn South Korea to "ashes," and, on several occasions, by calling President Lee a "traitor." South Korean media quote senior military officials who say the North has flown jet fighters close to the tense inter-Korean border at least 11 times since Mr. Lee was inaugurated. The last flight of two jets reportedly took place the day before South Korean voters handed President Lee's party a resounding majority in this week's nationwide legislative elections.