South Korea has warned North Korea it may reduce food aid to the North if Pyongyang proceeds with a long-range missile test. As evidence mounts that a missile launch may be imminent, the South's former president, Kim Dae-jung, has put plans for a goodwill visit to the North on hold.
South Korea has been notably gentle in dealing with North Korea in recent years, preferring to engage its long-time enemy even as other nations, including the United States, criticize Pyongyang openly over its nuclear weapons programs and its human rights record.
This week, however, North Korea's friends in the South have begun to join an international chorus of voices warning Pyongyang against apparent plans to test fire a long-range ballistic missile.
South Korean Unification Minister Lee Jeong-seok said Wednesday that Seoul may re-evaluate its policy of transferring massive amounts of food aid to the impoverished North if Pyongyang follows through with the test.
Former South Korean president Kim Dae-jung had been scheduled next week to make a follow-up visit to Pyongyang, six years after his ground-breaking summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. But Jeong Se-hyun, the former cabinet minister who is handling the travel arrangements, announced Wednesday that the trip had been put on hold.
Jeong says the prospective North Korean missile launch makes conditions too difficult for the trip to take place right now. Once the situation has been dealt with, he says, the trip may be rescheduled.
Explicit warnings against a test launch have come from the United States, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and France, among others, since last week, when satellite images showed preparations underway at a North Korean missile launch site.
Japanese Senior Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe repeated Wednesday that a test launch would be a clear violation of formal promises Pyongyang has made to Tokyo and the international community.
Since the 2000 summit between the two Kims, South Korea has sent millions of tons of food and fertilizer to ease the North's chronic shortages. Aid groups say as many as a million North Koreans died during severe famine conditions in the 1990's.
Seoul usually treats that aid as a humanitarian matter, completely separate from political or strategic issues such as the North's production of nuclear weapons.
However, a spokesman for South Korea's opposition Grand National Party says Unification Minister Lee told lawmakers Wednesday that a missile launch could lead to a reduction in food assistance. Lee assured lawmakers that the administration of South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun would not remain silent if the launch goes forward.
South Korea's Yonhap news agency on Wednesday quoted senior North Korean envoy Han Song Ryol as saying North Korea was ready to resolve the issue of the missile test through discussions with Washington.
But U.S. officials have refused bilateral talks with Pyongyang, saying the only appropriate forum for the two countries to meet is the stalled six-party talks aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear weapons programs. Those talks also involve South Korea, Japan, Russia and China.
Nam Sung-wook, a North Korean expert at Seoul's Korea University, says a postponement of former President Kim's visit could actually work in Pyongyang's favor.
Nam says Pyongyang's primary goal is to enter one-on-one talks with the United States. He says the apparent preparations for a missile test are aimed to pressuring Washington into such talks, and that welcoming Kim Dae-jung to the North would have diluted the effectiveness of this tactic.