As North Korea ratchets up tensions with its southern neighbour, being seen as pro-South is increasingly perilous in the hermit kingdom. A southern news agency just reported that the leading pro-reconciliation deputy in the North, Choe Sung Chol, was executed last year, though some analysts believe he was sent to a re-education camp or possibly banished to a chicken farm. Other pro-South officials have been replaced by military hard-liners.
Relations have soured since last year’s election in the South of conservative President Lee Myung-bak, who ended years of “sunshine” aid flowing north and linked economic assistance to nuclear disarmament by Kim Jong Il’s nation. The North’s position soon hardened. “North Korea launched a probe into corruption last spring. However it later escalated into a political purge as inter-Korean relations worsened,” Lee Seung-yong, director of a southern research group that has extensive dealings across the border, told Reuters. “North Korea might have needed scapegoats. Reconciliation, which blossomed under liberal governments in Seoul, had caused a kind of admiration for South Korea among some party cadres.”
So it was no surprise when the North suddenly voided labour, tax and rent agreements at the Kaesong Industrial Park on May 15. The economic zone, located just north of the most heavily militarized border in the world, houses 100 South Korean firms employing 38,000 North Korean workers. Now the North wants more money, including better wages, which now start at US$70 a month. Since the salaries are paid directly to the Communist government, analysts see it as a cash grab by Kim Jong Il’s isolated and repressive regime. It needs the hard currency, especially since international sanctions were tightened after the North defied the world by backing out of a nuclear deal and launching a rocket in April.
Yet not all contact is abrasive. Earlier this month, a southern naval helicopter drove off Somali pirates as they were about to attack a North Korean ship off the coast of Africa.