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*** INTER-KOREAN RELATION
Inter-Korean Trade Dwarfed by China-North Korea Trade: Data
SEOUL (Yonhap) -- Inter-Korean trade jumped more than 15 percent last year but was still far short of that between China and North Korea, data showed on March 7.
According to the data compiled by the Korea International Trade Association (KITA) in Seoul, trade volume between South Korea and North Korea reached US$1.98 billion last year, up 15.8 percent from a year earlier.
But the 2012 annual trade amount between the two Koreas was just some 30 percent of North Korea's trade with its strongest ally China, the data showed.
Last year, China-North Korea trade reached $5.93 billion, up 5.4 percent, they showed.
Inter-Korean trade posted an annual gain of 2.1 percent between 2008 and 2012, while trade between Beijing and Pyongyang grew at a faster pace of 20.8 percent during the cited period, according to the data.
The slower growth of inter-Korean trade was attributed mainly to persisting tension on the Korean Peninsula.
South Korea's relations with the North have been frozen since former President Lee Myung-bak took office in 2008, virtually cutting off inter-Korean economic cooperation.
In response, the North has strengthened its ties with China in an effort to help revive its moribund economy alongside stricter international sanctions following its nuclear and rocket tests.
FM: Security Situation on Korean Peninsula Becomes 'Very Grave'
SEOUL (Yonhap) -- South Korea's new Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se said on March 11 that the security situation on the Korean Peninsula has become "very grave" as tensions rise over North Korea's threats of war.
"The security situation on the Korean Peninsula for now is very grave as the unpredictability surrounding North Korea is rising following its third nuclear test," Yun said in his inauguration speech as he officially took up the post.
"However, my aim is to turn this era of confrontation and mistrust into an era of trust and cooperation with North Korea," Yun said.
North Korea has ramped up its bellicose rhetoric after the U.N. Security Council adopted a tougher new resolution to punish the North for conducting its third nuclear test in February.
Escalating its war of words, North Korea cut off a Red Cross hotline with South Korea earlier in the day and Seoul and Washington kicked off their annual joint military drills on the Korean Peninsula.
The North's threats make it difficult for President Park Geun-hye to pursue her "trust-building" policy with North Korea that calls for more engagement with the North, while not tolerating Pyongyang's nuclear ambition.
"I would like to put my priority on a trust-based diplomacy. Throughout this, I will make the utmost effort to make all people in South and North Korea happy and free," Yun said.
"The most important part of President Park's trust-building process is to rebuild confidence between South and North Korea," Yun said, but cautioned that the goal is "very challenging."
South Korean and U.S. forces are carrying out large-scale joint military drills on the Korean Peninsula by the end of April, with Seoul military officials saying that North Korea will also conduct a nationwide military drill this week.
S. Korea Seeks Dialogue with N. Korea Despite Tensions: Minister
SEOUL (Yonhap) -- South Korea seeks dialogue with the North despite rising tensions following the socialist country's third nuclear test and repeated war threats, Seoul's new unification minister said on March 11.
In an inaugural address, Ryoo Kihl-jae stressed inter-Korean talks are needed down the line even if current developments are very grave.
The North tested its third nuclear device on Feb. 12, in defiance of warnings issued by the U.N. Security Council (UNSC). The global body responded by expanding sanctions against the North, which Pyongyang views as a declaration of war.
The isolationist country also threatened to nullify all non-aggression pacts reached between Seoul and Pyongyang in the past, and said the Korean War (1950-53) cease-fire agreement in now null and void. The measures also coincide with the start of the joint South Korea-U.S. Key Resolve military exercise.
The 54-year-old former University of North Korean Studies professor said it is imperative for both the South and the North to respect the other side if trust is to be built.
"Holding talks is critical, and it is vitally important that both Koreas respect and adhere to past agreements such as the July 4th North-South Joint Statement signed in 1972, the June 15 Joint Declaration reached in 2000, and the Oct. 4 joint declaration agreed to in 2007," he said.
The policymaker then said that depending on future developments South Korea can examine ways to offer humanitarian support to the North, although for the time being, emphasis must be placed on strengthening the country's defense against possible provocations.
"It is hard to discuss other matters when the North is making military threats," he pointed out, although elaborating that support for babies and socially disadvantaged people in the North can be moved forward independent of political developments. He did not elaborate on when such support would be offered.
He added that in the future, the North should also actively try to respond to humanitarian requests made by the South in such areas as allowing family reunions of family members separated by the Korean War (1950-53), releasing people kidnapped by the North and repatriation of South Korean prisoners of war.
South Korea Warns North Korea Not to Scrap Korean War Armistice
SEOUL (Yonhap) -- South Korea's foreign ministry said on March 12 that an Armistice Agreement that ended the 1950-53 Korean War remains valid, despite the North's threats to scrap the cease-fire deal.
"The terms of the Armistice Agreement cannot be unilaterally invalid or terminated," foreign ministry spokesman Cho Tai-young said, demanding North Korea withdraw the threats.
North Korea said early this week that the armistice was "completely invalid," in response to tougher U.N. sanctions against the North's third nuclear test and ongoing joint military drills between Seoul and Washington.
Pyongyang had previously declared the armistice was invalid, but the North's increasingly menacing rhetoric following the U.N. vote raised concerns that the isolated regime may stage another round of provocations.
Cho said South Korea will "strengthen coordination and cooperation with the U.S. and China, and sternly deal with any attempt from North Korea to scrap the Armistice Agreement."
Military Hotline between Two Koreas Remains Open: Presidential Office
SEOUL (Yonhap) -- A military hotline remains open between South and North Korea, a presidential spokeswoman said on March 13, though the socialist nation cut off a Red Cross telephone line at the border village of Panmunjom earlier this week.
"Currently, the military communication (line) is operating normally, though North Korea severed the Panmunjom direct phone (line)," presidential spokeswoman Kim Haing said. "If necessary, we plan to send a message to North Korea via this (line)."
The North cut off the Panmunjom line on March 11 in anger over joint military exercises between South Korea and the United States, and a new U.N. Security Council resolution against the country for its third nuclear test.
Tensions on the divided peninsula have been high as North Korea has sharply raised war threats in recent weeks.
Meanwhile, Kim also said that South Korea plans to seek consular access to two of its citizens detained recently in China while trying to help refugees from North Korea and will also ask Beijing to treat them fairly.
The two women, who became South Korean after defecting from the North, were arrested Saturday in the northeastern Chinese border city of Yanji, along with eight refugees from the North, according to a South Korean activist for North Korean defectors.
The detained refugees, five of them minors under the age of 20, were sent to a prison and face repatriation to their communist homeland, he said.
"The government decided to have our diplomatic mission there try to have a consular meeting with them and ask for handling the case in a fair manner at an early date," Kim said.
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