SEOUL, South Korea – North Korea threatened Thursday to break off all relations with South Korea if its new conservative government continues what the North called a policy of reckless confrontation with the communist nation.
The warning, issued in a commentary carried in the North's main Rodong Sinmun newspaper, means Pyongyang could terminate civilian exchanges with the South, including a tourism program and a joint factory park, which have continued despite a freeze in government-level ties.
The North made a similar threat during military talks with the South earlier this month, saying it would expel South Koreans from the tourism and industrial projects if propaganda leaflets critical of Pyongyang keep arriving over the border.
North Korea has been unhappy with South Korea's new President Lee Myung-bak, who took office in February with a pledge to get tough on the rival state — a stance that contrasted with that of his two liberal predecessors who aggressively sought reconciliation by providing massive aid to the impoverished nation.
If the South "keeps to the road of reckless confrontation with the (North), defaming its dignity despite its repeated warnings, this will compel it to make a crucial decision including the total freeze of the North-South relations," the commentary said.
South Korea played down the threat, and urged the North to resolve problems through dialogue.
"It does not mean the North will take steps immediately," said Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Ho-nyeon. "We will monitor the situation regarding this, and there is no change in the government's intention to improve South-North relations through dialogue."
The warning also came days after North Korea resumed a stalled nuclear disarmament process after the United States removed it from a terrorism blacklist, and amid lingering questions about the health of the North's leader Kim Jong Il.
Analysts said the North is increasing pressure on Seoul to change its policy toward Pyongyang, now that the nuclear impasse with the United States has been resolved.
"The North is putting strong pressure on our government as its relations with the United States are improving and its negotiating power is gaining strength," said Hong Hyun-ik, an expert at the security think tank Sejong Institute.
"It's a sort of brinksmanship strategy," he said.
Yang Moo-jin, a professor at Seoul's University of North Korean Studies, shared the same view, adding the North is trying to show its warning — made during one-off military talks early this month — "was not empty language."
North Korea has suspended all government-level dialogue and exchanges, though the sides met as part of broader international negotiations on Pyongyang's nuclear programs. It has also rejected a food aid proposal and dialogue offers from the South, saying they lacked sincerity.
North Korea has branded the South's president a "traitor," "pro-American sycophant" and "despicable human scum."
"The Lee group is becoming more frantic in its racket of confrontation with the (North) in league with outside forces," Thursday's commentary said, calling Lee "so hell-bent on sycophancy towards the U.S. and confrontation with fellow countrymen."
Ties frayed further after a South Korean woman was shot dead by a North Korean soldier in July during a tour to the North's Diamond Mountain resort after she entered an adjacent restricted military area. South Korea immediately suspended the mountain tour program.
Despite the freeze in their ties, other civilian exchanges have proceeded, including another tour program to the North's ancient border city of Kaesong and a joint factory park nearby.
Thursday's warning means the North could suspend the two programs.
Along with the suspended Diamond Mountain tour project, the two programs have been considered prominent symbols of inter-Korean reconciliation. But they have also been criticized for providing hard currency that could be used for North Korea's nuclear development.
The two sides fought the 1950-53 Korean War that ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, leaving the peninsula technically still at war. Their ties had warmed significantly since the first-ever 2000 summit of their leaders before freezing again this year.