Image: South and North Korea Transit gate
Ahn Young-joon  /  AP
The South and North Korea Transit gate near the demilitarized zone at Goseong, east of Seoul, South Korea, is seen on Wednesday. Pyongyang announced plans to "cut off all the overland passages" from Dec. 1.
updated 11/12/2008 2:52:41 PM ET 2008-11-12T19:52:41

North Korea's military announced Wednesday it will shut the country's border with the South on Dec. 1 — a marked escalation of threats against Seoul's new conservative government at a time of heightened tension on the peninsula.

The military's chief delegate to inter-Korean talks informed his South Korean counterpart that the North will "restrict and cut off" cross-border routes next month, state-run Korean Central News Agency said.

Analysts called it a political move designed to humiliate Seoul by hobbling a joint industrial park in the city of Kaesong, just across the border, that has served as a beacon of hope for reconciliation.

Relations between the two Koreas — separated by troops, tanks and one of the world's most heavily armed borders since a three-year war that ended in a truce in 1953 — have been frosty since South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak took office in February.

Lee pledged to be tough with communist North Korea, an abrupt departure from his liberal predecessors' decade-long policy of fostering reconciliation with aid and other concessions.

Delivering an ultimatum
Pyongyang reacted by cutting off diplomatic ties with Seoul. Relations deteriorated further in July when a North Korean soldier fatally shot a South Korean tourist visiting Diamond Mountain, with Seoul banning tours to the jointly operated resort in the North.

After months without contact, the North's military summoned South Korea to the border for talks last month, only to berate Seoul over anti-Pyongyang leaflets that continue to flutter over the border in helium-fueled balloons.

The two Koreas had agreed in 2004 to end propaganda warfare across the border, but the South says it cannot prohibit activists from dispatching the leaflets, citing freedom of speech.

Wednesday's warning — the North's most concrete, calculated threat yet — amounts to an ultimatum to the Lee administration to acknowledge that it must abide by past agreements, analysts said.

"This is a critical juncture in their estimation that they have to take some action," said Paik Hak-soon of South Korea's Sejong Institute. "They feel that they have waited enough."

The warning is "very, very serious," said Lim Eul-chul of Kyungnam University's Institute for Far Eastern Studies in Seoul. "This is an escalation of North Korea warnings."

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The tension comes amid questions about the health of North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Il. U.S. and South Korean officials say Kim, 66, suffered a stroke, but North Korea denies he was ever ill.

Decision 'regrettable'
Pyongyang's tactic may be to wear Seoul down. However, the Lee administration has stood its ground and said little Wednesday about the North's latest move. "Waiting is sometimes a strategy," Lee said, according to his spokesman.

The North's decision to shut the border is "regrettable," said Kim Ho-nyeon, the Unification Ministry spokesman.

Paik said Pyongyang may use Kaesong to humiliate Seoul. Shutting down Kaesong would be a "serious blow to South Korean politics. It will start off a debate what went wrong with North Korea policy."

The Kaesong complex has been a key source of hard currency for the impoverished North and a symbol of reconciliation: South Korean firms send raw materials through the border and the goods come back stamped "Made in Kaesong."

Lim said he doubted North Korea would kick everyone out Dec. 1.

"They will take gradual steps to pressure our government to change their policy. That is their main goal."

He and other analysts noted that North Korea has a pattern of using provocation as a negotiating tactic, both with South Korea and with other nations seeking to disarm the Korean peninsula.

No nuclear samples
Meanwhile, North Korea also said Wednesday that it won't allow outside inspectors to take samples from its main nuclear complex to verify its accounting of past nuclear activities.

Pyongyang's Foreign Ministry said in a statement that it never agreed to such sampling, contradicting statements by U.S. officials.

The conflicting statements could prove to be a new snag in the long, tortured process of nuclear disarmament on the Korean peninsula. North Korea has agreed to give up its nuclear weapons but had bickered with the U.S. over verification, with Washington insisting on strict measures to ensure Pyongyang is not hiding any active atomic programs.

U.S. officials said last month that North Korea agreed to allow atomic experts to take samples and conduct forensic tests at all of its declared nuclear facilities and undeclared sites on mutual consent.

Sample-taking is believed to be a key means of nuclear verification.

'Infringing upon sovereignty'
On Wednesday, the North's Foreign Ministry said the country agreed last month only to let nuclear inspectors visit its main atomic complex, view related documents and interview scientists.

Pyongyang also said only its Yongbyon atomic complex is subject to verification, and inspections can take place only after it receives all energy aid promised from its negotiating partners — China, Japan, South Korea, the United States and Russia.

"It is an act of infringing upon sovereignty little short of seeking a house-search ... to insist on adding even a word except the written agreement reached between" the two countries, said the statement carried by the North's official Korean Central News Agency.

State Department spokesman Robert Wood contradicted the North's claims that it never agreed to allow outside inspectors to take samples.

"I'm not able to tell you what the North Koreans are thinking," Wood said; but it had been "agreed that experts could take samples and remove them from the country for testing."

"We want everybody to adhere to their obligations," Wood added.

South Korea called the North's statement "disappointing." "There should be a thorough verification that can confirm the correctness and completeness of the declaration North Korea submitted," Seoul's Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

In Wednesday's statement, the North also complained about a delay in energy aid shipments, saying it has slowed disabling the Yongbyon nuclear reactor in response.

The U.S.-North Korea deal on verification has been awaiting endorsement at formal six-nation nuclear talks that have yet to be scheduled.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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