SEOUL, South Korea – South Korea's president warned Tuesday that rival North Korea faces collapse if it doesn't abandon its nuclear bomb program, an unusually strong broadside that will likely infuriate Pyongyang.
President Park Geun-hye, in a nationally televised parliamentary address defending her decision to shut down a jointly run factory park in North Korea, said South Korea will take unspecified "stronger and more effective" measures to make North Korea realize its nuclear ambitions will result only in speeding up its "regime collapse."
Park shut the facility in response to the North's recent long-range rocket test, which Seoul and Washington see as a test of banned ballistic missile technology. North Korea last month also conducted a nuclear test. Both developments put the country further along it its quest for a nuclear armed missile that could reach the U.S. mainland.
Without elaborating, Park said the North has diverted much of the Seoul payments to North Korean workers at the factory park to the Pyongyang leadership, which is in charge of nuclear and missile development. She also said the South has sent more than $3 billion in government and civilian aid to the North since mid-1990s.
Much of the aid was made when South Korea was governed by back-to-back liberal governments seeking rapprochement with North Korea from 1998 to 2003, according to her office. Park said South Korea must not provide few-strings-attached large-scale aid to North Korea "like in the past."
She called for support for her government amid a divide in South Korea about its tough response to North Korea. "Aiming the point of a sword back to us and splitting us up are something that must not take place," she said.
South Korea's main liberal opposition party has criticized the government's decision to suspend operations at Kaesong, saying the measure will hurt only South Korean businessmen and deepen tensions with North Korea. Liberal lawmakers also said the Kaesong shutdown is not effective because North Korea maintains economic ties with China and Russia.
Some analysts have said that without Kaesong as leverage, South Korea's ability to influence change in the North has now evaporated.
It is unusual for a top South Korean official to publicly touch upon such a government collapse in North Korea because of worries about how sensitive North Korea is to talk of its authoritarian government losing power. Pyongyang has long accused Washington and Seoul of agitating for its collapse.
Park's speech contained harsh language, describing North Korea as "merciless" and under an "extreme reign of terror" following recent purges of top officials that outside analysts say were aimed at bolstering leader Kim Jong Un's grip on power. Park also referred to Kim by his name several times when she criticized his government, something many Seoul leaders have avoided in the hopes of improved ties with Pyongyang.
Park's comments are certain to anger North Korea as they were made as the country marks the birthday of late dictator Kim Jong Il, the father of Kim Jong Un.
Seoul officials said North Korea was able to divert the Kaesong payments because the workers there were not paid directly.
Instead, U.S. dollars were paid to the North Korean government, which siphoned off most of the money and paid only what it wanted to the employees in North Korean currency and store vouchers, according to a statement from Seoul's' Unification Ministry on Sunday.
The ministry did not detail how it arrived at that conclusion. North Korea has previously dismissed such views.
Earlier this month, North Korea ignored repeated international warnings and launched what it said was an Earth observation satellite aboard a rocket. The launch triggered global condemnation, with Seoul, Washington and others pushing hard to have Pyongyang slapped with strong sanctions.
In response to Seoul's Kaesong shutdown decision, Pyongyang last week expelled all the South Korean workers there, put its military in charge of the area, and cut off key communication hotlines between the Koreas.